Brigands [3.2]

This one she could not blame on drinking. This time it was all squarely on her.

“You did it again Yana. You have no self-control. You horrible– you evil–”

Her self-flagellation caught in her throat. She thought she would puke. She sobbed.

She drank last night. She drank a lot. And had that been all, she would not have wept.

What made her most upset was that she was not drunk. She was fully aware.

She remembered everything, but it was as if she had done it all with a devil on her shoulder.

In her head she reviewed everything she had done as if she had watched a stranger do it.

But it was not some stranger. It was herself. She did it, and she knew it, and hated the fact.

On the nightstand, an empty bottle. Apricot liquor. Fancy stuff; it was a big enough bottle that she hoped she had help with it. A headache, a sense of burning in her chest, and the cold sweat running down her face, down her back; she had drunk it. She had drunk a lot. However, the most mortifying thing is she never lost control. Everything she did was impulsive but deliberate.

Last night she had gone out to celebrate the end of the recent crisis. Drinking, dancing, at different venues across the station, at the plazas, co-ops, canteens, joining a throng of celebrants. She hit it off with a particular someone, and from there everything felt like magic. Lovely, witty conversation, fast, flirtatious dancing, great booze. They found a private nook, and after slipping the coat off her shoulders, she dove into that first hungry kiss in the neck. Then she went home, and not alone. She had lifted her up by her legs, dropped her onto the bed, devoured her.

Yana gagged, the burning in her chest rising to her throat.

No amount of being drunk justified it. She felt mortified. This was her own room and her own bed that she had woken up in. And the stranger sharing it with her was her responsibility.

A dark-haired, waifish young woman laid beside her, close enough to share her warmth. Young; clearly younger than Yana. Her chest rose and fell with gentle breathing, completely exposed with all the loving red marks which had been put on the tips of her breasts, her collarbones, between her thighs. Atop her head a pair of cat-like, neatly fluffy ears periodically twitched.

Every so often a tiny little moan would escape her lips. Her tail would curl up too.

Her sleep was untroubled. Maybe she had just not drank as much,

She covered the girl up with a sheet. Both for her comfort and dignity, and to hide her.

“How old is she, Yana,” She berated herself.

Her shaking fingers hit the wall, and the room computer put up the ID that had been logged.

The woman she had spent the night having sex with was 27 years old.

“Yana, you’re nine years older than her.”

She brought the same hand she had used to type into the wall, up to her face.

Her whole body was shaking with shame. She absolutely hated herself.

Among other things she was shaking with, was her continuing, heavy bout with nausea.

Bolting from the bed, she rushed her own cold, naked body to the bathroom, where she bent over the waste collection vents. Seemingly understanding of her plight, the bathroom spread a fine, sweet-smelling mist over her as it washed away the contents of her stomach. She felt the sting of the liquor coming back up her throat. She hated it; she hated herself so much for this.

“I’ll apologize when she wakes up.” She said, breathlessly, to herself. “I’ll ask if she wants anything from me and I’ll give it to her. If she wants me to appear before council, or marriage–”

She could hardly think back to the other times this had happened where no restitution was necessary, as she was caught in such a mire of self-loathing that everything seemed a grand crime and nothing about the other woman’s agency entered her head. She was in this state, watching her bathroom clean itself, for several minutes, before a notification appeared on the wall next to her.

“Ulyana Korabiskaya. I request to meet with you.”

Yana was speechless, staring with a wide, horror-stricken gaze at the ID of the visitor.

Parvati Nagavanshi.

While her bed was taken up by a woman in the afterglow, while she was naked, with her knees on the floor bent over a grate, and the apartment smelled of booze and sweat despite the best effort of the machines– the Commissar-General was at her door awaiting an audience.

Was this it? The day that her absurd life would be put to an end?

“Ulyana Korabiskaya, your room says it is occupied. It is past 1100 hours and you should be awake. I am willing to leave a message, but this discourtesy is highly irregular, and I resent it.”

It was past 1100 hours.

Yana raised her hand up to her face and pulled down in distress.

“Just a moment!” She shouted. “One minute and I’ll be there!”

From her bed she heard a low murmur, and a purring noise.

Yana froze in place.

“I will wait.” Nagavanshi said.

Her heart was stuck in her chest. She could not breathe or move.

There was silence for just enough to convince Yana that the girl had not woken up.

Carefully, she rose to her feet, and pulled a nearly see-through casual robe from her closet.

Throwing this on, her hair slightly wet, she appeared to have stepped out of the shower.

In this attire, she opened the door a crack, and smiled at the Commissar-General.

“Good morning, Nagavanshi!” She said cheerfully. “My, it has been so long hasn’t it?”

“It’s good to see you again. Get dressed. We need to speak at length.”

Nagavanshi’s expression was humorless as usual. Always pristinely uniformed, no matter where she went; she was a walking office, exercising her duty every hour of the day. She was a woman of slight stature, professional and groomed, with her hair tied up under her peaked cap, her dark skin completely unadorned with makeup or accessories of any kind. Her gaze was the most intense part of her, unwavering even with her eyes shaded by her cap and framed by tidy bangs.  

Yana laughed. She sounded audibly uncomfortable and she could not hide it.

“I had a bit of a rough night.” Yana said.

“I can tell. What you need is to eat something and get some plaza air. Come on.”

For a brief moment Nagavanshi turned her head to try to see around Yana.

“Okay! Give me a few minutes!”

Yana slammed the door shut.

She put her back to it, breathing ragged, staring at the placidly sleeping girl in her bed.

Their clothes were on the floor. In one corner she found her dress, and the one-piece wet suit she had worn last night. So the tiny, filmy, erotic black dress must have belonged to the woman in her bed. Her lover’s suit was shaded mesh that was almost see-through, and the dress itself had plenty of gaps for skin to show. It was an incredibly bold design, at the cutting edge of fashion — and maybe modesty. Yana loved it; it was the kind of clothes she would have loved to wear, if she did not feel a persisting shame in the pit of her stomach for being a party girl at age 36.

Yana tapped on the wall again and brought the woman’s ID one more time.

Her name was Aaliyah Bashara.

“I’ll make it up to you.” She clapped her hands together and bowed her head as if begging. “Please forgive me!” Trying not to drop dead from the overwhelming, mortifying sense of shame she felt with herself, Yana donned a casual one-piece swimsuit, along with a jacket and a pair of pants. Her long, wavy blond hair she quickly tied up behind the back of her head with a big, sturdy hair claw. There was no time to fix her makeup. She just washed her face and dabbed it off.

Aaliyah was not stirring throughout. She was out like a light.

Yana pinned a wall computer window on one of the walls, leaving it open with a note.

“Ulyana–”

  “I’m coming!”

I have to go, but I will make it up to you. — Yana K.

There was no more time to agonize over what she could say or do for Aaliyah Bashara that would be enough to assuage her own guilt and shame, let alone any feelings Aaliyah Bashara actually had about the night they had spent. With little consideration for the young woman and a head full of completely self-centered thoughts, Yana finally left the apartment to meet Nagavanshi outside. The Commissar, for her part, had not changed in demeanor for the better or the worse.

“You look in total disarray.” Nagavanshi said. “Let’s get you some food.”

Yana sighed. She walked behind the Commissar; her steps unsteady, her head pounding.

Owing to her distinguished service, Yana lived in a slightly nicer apartment in one of the slightly nicer habitats in the Block on Thassal station. Her habitat was on the opposite side of the Thassal mound from a certain Lieutenant’s. While all accommodations were supposed to be equal, and at least in size they were, it was a fact that older habitats built or refurbished after the Revolution were the lesser kin of newer habitats. These had more consistent power, and slightly better access to water and climate control owing to their newer desalinators, recycler systems and air treatment. They also had wider halls and more accessible plazas and shopping strips.

Room assignment was “decided by machine.” Computers did not make any decisions by themselves, of course, they had no capability to do so. What this meant was that a program would be run to randomly assign housing, making sure people of all kinds were represented among all blocks of housing stock. But Union leadership also used housing as a reward mechanism in certain cases. Yana was not the only medal-earning military veteran to have a room in a nicer habitat.

It was one of many things she did not feel she deserved.

However, it was impossible for her to turn down machine-awarded accolades.

From Yana’s habitat they made their way to the services district, which had an open space for trading or bartering as well as a canteen serving hot food and a government shop with clothes and other necessities. Contained within a glass and steel structure, the space was designed so the inhabitants could see out into the flooded cave deep in the center of Thassal Station’s stone mound. All manner of odd deep dwelling creatures passed by the glass for curious onlookers to see.

There were a few tables filled with various things to be traded or bartered with. Some of the objects were accompanied by their owners, who were looking to negotiate. Others were left with a note of encouragement from the former owner. By far the most common items were clothes. Many people traded clothing to acquire new fashions, since fancy, innovative clothing was mostly the handiwork of hobbyists and not government-backed industry. There were also books, and even a few diskettes of someone’s homemade video game, free for anyone interested.

Nagavanshi did not acknowledge the presence of the table. Her gaze was fixed forward.

She always struck Yana as someone who already had everything she needed for her life.

If Nagavanshi wanted anything, it must have been intangible. Influence; power; love?

As depressing as it sounded, Yana did not believe Nagavanshi capable of the latter.

At the seating area specifically for the canteen they found a small table for two. Soon a boy in overalls stopped at their table, flashed them a chipper smile and asked to take their orders. He could not have been older than fourteen. He was fulfilling his community work credit for school.

“What will it be ladies? Item A or Item B?”

Canteens served two different meals during the day, and another two different meals at night. The menu was based on what they could prepare to feed potentially thousands of people with the resources they had on hand. It was rude to ask exactly what was being served, but suggestions and alterations based on mood, availability, or dietary needs, could be made right at the table.

In her case, Yana had a simple question. “Which one’s the fattiest?”

Her father had always told her that a fatty meal and a bottomless glass of seltzer water was the only real cure for drunkenness. Nagavanshi glared at her, likely misunderstanding her intent.

“You’ll be wanting ‘B’; I’ll tell big sis to give you some extra margarine.”

He turned a big smile on Nagavanshi. She gave him back the tiniest little smirk.

“I’ll take ‘A’.” Nagavanshi said.

“Coming right up!”

From the table, the boy darted cheerfully back to the canteen counter, and conferred with the woman doing the cooking for the day. Soon, the boy returned with two plastic cases worth of food, which included their own plastic cutlery. Each of the menus had a drink. Yana’s came with a clear soda flavored only with a bit of syrup. Nagavanshi had a yellow drink from a citrus powder.

There had been an upward trend in their meals recently, and had the circumstances been different Yana would have found this lunch to be a highlight of the day. A triangular slice of cornbread, resting on a pool of margarine and pickled chicken’s eggs, made up half the plate. The real treasure was slices of battered, fried eggplant rounds. She almost believed they were fresh.

On Nagavanshi’s plate, there was a big biscuit that had been soaked in broth and took on a honey-brown color and turned soft. This biscuit was then set on a puddle of broth that had been scooped into the case. On top of the biscuit there was tomato and corn relish, yeast shavings and pickled egg. Yana guessed that pickled egg was the protein of the day for Thassal station.

“Is it ok if I dig in? I have one hell of a ‘morning-after’ headache.” Yana asked.

Without answer, Nagavanshi dipped her spoon into her biscuit and took a bite.

Yana nodded, and tucked into her own plate. Eggplant was nice and salty, well-breaded.

Nagavanshi barely nipped at her food. She gave Yana time eat before she talked again.

“You didn’t participate in the battle for Thassalid trench. Why did you refuse to?”

A direct assault right after lunch! Yana was ill prepared to be questioned like this.

She almost choked on the last bite of her food. She took a long gulp of soda water.

“It is your right not to do so, but I don’t understand. You could have been a valuable asset. You have much more experience on a large ship than some of the people who received ships there.”

Nagavanshi continued to calmly interrogate her, ignoring Yana’s clear distress.

Once her throat was finally clear, Yana could finally take audible offense to this inquiry.

“I exercised my rights! You’re correct, they’re my rights, I have a right not to go to war if I choose to do so. I served my time. Let the eager young people have a chance at those battles!”

“You refuse the battle, but it appears that you don’t refuse the party afterwards.”

The Commissar-General had a weary expression on her face. A tired, concerned gaze.

Though it was hard to tell with her, perhaps it even signified worry.

And Yana hated it. She hated it almost as much as she hated herself.

This was not a battle of words between one of the highest authorities in the nation and a pathetic, drunk, womanizing has-been Captain. Yana realized that she was speaking to Parvati, a woman who had once served under her. A woman who had been educated alongside her. A woman who, perhaps with some personal ambiguities, could be considered a friend, or at least a peer.

They were acting as equals in this discussion. Painful as it was, Yana recognized that.

And how dare she? How dare she come back like this after being distant for so long?

“Why did you come to Thassal Station, Nagavanshi? Surely it wasn’t for this?”

Nagavanshi looked upset. “I came to laugh at you. Is that what you want to hear?”

There was only one way that Yana could think to reply to that. “Fuck you!”

“You imagined from the outset that I was here to make you the victim you want to be.”

Yana stood up suddenly and put both fists against the table, rocking the lunch boxes.

“Parvati, you’re still nothing but the little rulebook-citing twerp who kept the bridge crew in line with me. I’ll put your head through this table right now. Don’t test me with your bullshit.”

“Listen to me Yana.” Nagavanshi was always so calm, and Yana hated that even more. “I have a proposal for you. You can beat me up afterwards if you want. In the end, it won’t matter either way. If you do what I want, I’ll be beaten down by the bravest hero the Union has ever seen. And if you refuse me, I’ll be beaten up by a pathetic nobody who has amounted to nothing.”

Yana stopped in her tracks. Her eyes watered, her rage quickly dissolving. All her emotions were starting to divert elsewhere. She had gone from seeing red, to seeing nothing but her tears. She barely heard Nagavanshi, but she understood enough to realize there was a lot more happening than just her politically ascendant old shipmate coming to patronize her old failure of a Captain.

“No matter what happens, I’ll wipe the blood out of my lips. I’ve already won.”

Nagavashi procured a picture from her uniform coat and laid it on the table.

It was a photograph of a ship. A rather odd ship. Long, two-tiered, boxy.

“What is this?” Yana asked. She settled back into her seat. All of her ravaneous energy was gone. That terrifying instant of power and violence had passed her by, and she felt twice her age. Tired, overwhelmed. She took the picture in her hands. “Is this a hauler? Do you want me to haul?”

“She’s special.” Nagavanshi said. “I want you to take her on a journey.”

“No.” Yana shook her head weakly. Her voice was losing all conviction. “I can’t.”

“You’re an incredible Captain. You command respect, discipline, sympathy. Your instincts are sharp; you’re a survivor; you’re a polyglot. You are good with people, situations, and gear. Nobody else can handle this. Anyone else in our peer group would fail; they will fail as people to their own crew, or fail militarily, or fail diplomatically, when the pressure really builds up.”

 Yana brought her hands up to her face to hide her tears. “Parvati I really cannot.”

“I do not expect you to comply immediately. But you belong in a ship again, Yana.”

“Parvati, I really cannot do this right now.”

“You still blame yourself for the Pravda, don’t you?”

Nagavanshi’s tone was as neutral as always. Yana could tell, however, that she was being soft. As soft as she could be, with as much empathy as her strict, materialist self could muster.

It was too much to bear. It made her head pound harder. Yana just couldn’t take it.

“How can I not?” She murmured.

“Because you had nothing to do with it. You were exonerated near immediately. It was the result of negligence and all those responsible paid their dues for it.”

Yana forced herself to make eye contact with Nagavanshi.

Her face was full of bitterness. Her eyes reddened with tears, wide open with resentment.

“I’m supposed to feel better because you found people to kill other than me?”

“You’re supposed to feel better because you were not to blame.”

“Forgive me, but I don’t see how that erases all the deaths I was helpless to stop.”

“You were a hero. Honestly, I can’t stand to see you choose to–”

“I didn’t choose anything!” Yana slammed the table again. From behind them, the canteen crew finally noticed the altercation and seemed hesitant. They would have known who Nagavanshi was. Yana didn’t care. “I didn’t even get to go down with my ship. That was also decided for me!”

This time however, Nagavanshi finally fell to her level and raised her voice.

“What would that have changed? You die and then what?”

Yana looked up at her with confusion. She was surprised to hear her finally emote.

Nagavanshi’s eyes returned a look to her that was just as bitter and resentful as her.

“If you ask me, it’s too convenient when soldiers just drop dead. There are so many stories that just end with a dead soldier and no more questions raised. Soldiers that don’t get to live don’t have to think about how to live after what they experienced. They don’t get healing; they don’t get redemption. I can’t offer you the former, but if you’re after the latter, then redeem yourself.”

She pushed the picture up to Yana, almost shoving it against the woman’s chest.

“This ship, the Brigand, is going to leave us for hundreds of days on a crucial mission. No other Captain will be able to shepherd a crew through such a long voyage. It has never been done. I believe that you can do it, Ulyana Korabiskaya. You can do it, precisely because you’ve faced hardship, and despite everything that has happened to you, no matter what, you continued living. You continued living because you inspired amazing men and women to give their all for you.”

Yana looked down at the picture of the ship, her eyes overflowing with tears.

She could not remember the terror of the Pravda except as scattered images, lights and sounds, screams and the hissing of gas, the feeling of fire kissing her back. That frustrating sense of ephemerality, that made her question whether anything truly happened at all, whether she was actually there to see it, brought tears to her eyes. She could not stop weeping over the table.

Through a heavy sob, she pushed the picture back toward Nagavanshi.

“Can I have a moment?” She asked. “To think about things.”

“You can cry all you want. I’ll wait.”

Yana sank against the table, sobbing heavily, unable to withstand the thundering of her former comrades’ words as they reverberated within her brain. To think that all those people died so that she would live, and all the misguided praise that the Commissar was heaping upon her. It felt so surreal. To be given a ship again after all she had been through, all she had failed to do.

A hand came to rest upon her hair.

It was gentle. Slender fingers stroked through her blonde locks without judgment.

“Cry all you need to before you come to the HQ tonight.”

Years’ worth of tears that had been caught inside the most cold, guarded recesses of Yana Korabiskaya came pouring out then. She did cry as if for two people, freely and without aim. Overwhelmed with shame and guilt, adrift in old injuries that she knew, no matter how much she tried, she would not be able to heal. Despite this: she wanted to take the offer now.


Previous ~ Next

Coup De Cœur (47.1)

This scene contains mild sexual content and social coercion.


51st of the Aster’s Gloom, 2030 D.C.E

Tambwe Dominance, City of Rangda — Council Building

At the turn of midnight the Rangdan Council building was abuzz with activity.

The Governor’s Office was particularly busy. There were civil servants elbow to elbow on the carpet and along the walls, and so much chatter that no one voice seemed to rise over the rest. There were drinks on hand, and many toasts called to seemingly nothing in particular. Arthur Mansa presided over the extravagant gathering, seated as if on a throne, behind the governor’s desk that should have belonged to his then-missing son.

Despite the chatter, the thrust of this spirited discussion felt impossible to follow.

As far as Chakrani Walters knew she was in a meeting to decide a course of action following the flagrant abuses of military power exhibited by the 1st Regiment during the events of the preceding days. It was very late at night, but Chakrani was not tired. She was accustomed to the night life, and indeed night was when she was most active. As a hostess, as a dedicated party-goer and as a lover, she was at her most vivid and alert in the night.

And yet, the tone of the conversation in Mansa’s office was inscrutable to her.

She felt drowsy trying to read the mood and to follow the discussion. There was nothing concrete being said. Mansa was laughing, drinking and carrying himself as if hosting a party. His closest officials were acting more like room decor. These men gained life only when prompted and only for the barest hint of agreement, a nodding of the head, a quick clap of the hands. There was no mention of Madiha or Solstice for the longest time.

Not that Chakrani was especially keen to think about Madiha these days, but it was necessary to put aside grudges for the good of the people, and she had to be ready.

Whether anyone else even cared about her feelings was another story entirely.

The scene reminded Chakrani of exoticized portraits of the old Imperial court. Had Mansa’s fingers been covered in golden rings and a crown been set upon his scalp, he could have been a king surrounded by smiling courtiers immortalized in acrylics.

Chakrani felt isolated. She sat on a padded chair, one in a line of several extending along a corner of the room parallel to Mansa’s desk, at once too near and too apart from his court. Everyone was dressed too well for the occasion, she thought. Though she had her ringlets done as pretty as ever, her attire was a drab skirt suit, her only good one, which had received quite a workout over the week. Meanwhile there were men in tuxes and fine coats and shiny shoes, and the occasional lady in a bright dress come to bring drinks.

Every other tongue was flapping, but she did not speak, for she knew not what she could say. Though she had prepared some notes, they felt irrelevant in the current climate. Nobody here seemed interested in the summary from her discussion with a trio of Adjar’s remaining Council members — three only because the rest had given up their posts. It did not seem like the time or place to talk about refugees, about food and work assistance.

“Ms. Walters.”

She heard Mansa’s commanding voice and turned on her chair to address him.

“Yes sir?”

“How do you like your wine? Red, white– palm, perhaps?”

Several sets of eyes turned at once to face her.

Chakrani contained a scoff. What a ridiculous question to be asked! She was not much of a wine drinker. She preferred mixed local drinks with a fleeting edge of hard liquor to them. Ayvarta was not a country of grapes. And what did it have to do with anything?

“I drink palm wine, but not often.” Chakrani wearily replied.

Mansa smiled, and beckoned someone close.

Through the doorway, a woman in a bright, elegant dress approached. She was tall and dark and very pretty, with a swinging figure and a heaving bosom and a large bottle of palm wine. She approached with a grin on her face and performed an almost lascivious curtsy for Chakrani, exposing some chest. Pulling up a chair, the woman sat beside her and poured her a drink. She remained at her side, laying a too-playful hand over Chakrani’s lap. Her body gave off a strong scent of mixed sweat and perfume and a hint of booze.

Once the drink was served Mansa gave Chakrani a smirk that sent her shivering.

He was as smugly satisfied as if he had done her a favor. She felt insulted.

Soon as he had brought her company, Mansa turned his attention elsewhere.

Perhaps she had been too quick to judge, but she had thought him a serious and committed person when they had met on and off the past week. Chakrani was aware of his strong track record in Solstice politics, thought of as an eternal incumbent with an invulnerable base of support and a grand diplomatic air. Not only that, but she knew him distantly through his father — the two of them had spoken and met and done business before the dire time of Akjer. She had thought of him as a man of leadership and scruples. Was this evening characteristic of how he carried out his vaunted diplomacy?

As the night went the strange procession continued. At her side the woman tried to make polite conversation. Mansa turned to her several times and asked about her days as a hostess, about her family life and upbringing; and each time he cut her off with his own tales of days past. He talked to her about his days as a patron of business. He talked about old Rangda, and he talked about the old Regional Court. It was stifling. She almost wanted to weep. She barely got a word in except to the lady he had provided for her company, who nodded and laughed and cooed at her, perhaps drunkenly.

Gradually Chakrani noticed the courtiers peeling off from the crowd and the room starting to thin out. Mansa grew more reserved; at her side, the woman in the dress, whose name Chakrani had not been able to coax out at all, clung closer to her and drank the remaining wine out of Chakrani’s glass. Chakrani thought this was her own cue to leave. But when she stood, the woman threw her arms around her and Mansa raised his hand.

“No, Ms. Walters, as a serious woman of politics, I expect you to stay.” He said.

Another ridiculous notion!

Chakrani blinked and settled back down on her chair. She peeled the drunk woman’s arms away from her waist, trying to get her to sort herself out in her own damned chair–

And doing so, she spotted a small handgun clipped to her suddenly exposed upper thigh.

She tried to show no incongruous changes in expression, but it was difficult.

Chakrani had only ever seen a gun up-close once when she took off Madiha’s belt.

She was clearly unused to the particular world of politics that she had stepped into.

“Ah, good, good!”

Preoccupied as she was with whether the woman at her side was fictionally drunk or factually capable of operating a firearm, Chakrani did not immediately notice a new set of men coming discreetly through the door. Mansa clapped his hands once for the arrivals, and this caused Chakrani to turn her head. He in turn acknowledged her once more.

“Chakrani, meet the loyal men of Rangda’s own 8th Ram Rifle Division. They will help us take care of our little Nakar problem, as well as help your people regain their strength.”

Chakrani went along with it. Mansa said something else, about confronting Madiha, about how these men would protect her from Madiha; she nodded affirmatively at his every word and said her ‘yes’es and ‘thank you’s. She was not paying him the proper attention, examining the army men and beginning to fear for her own position in this discussion.

There were several ordinary men of some rank or other; but there was one man who drew her attention the most. He was fairly tall, athletic and slim, with a rugged, handsome appearance, tanned, with a hooked nose, and a hint of slick blond hair under his cap.

His chest was decorated with many medals. He had more decorations than she had ever seen, though her only point of comparison was Madiha’s chest, years ago.

When he spoke his name at Mansa’s command, Chakrani stifled a gasp.

Brigadier General Gaul Von Drachen.

She was immediately sure no such person truly existed in Rangda’s armed forces.

And the looks of anxiety on the faces of the rest of the men seemed to confirm this.

Though they would not say it, these men were being dragged into something.

She, too, was being dragged into something.

Mansa, however, was delighted to have the man here. He welcomed him jovially.

“Our greatest asset arrives! Well, Let us speak discretely for now, General Drachen–”

Von Drachen, my good man. You see, Drachen alone, does not convey–”

General Von Drachen,” Mansa correct himself, cutting off the Brigadier, “I take it that your preparations are complete and you will be ready to assist me by the agreed date.”

“It should take my gruppen no later than the 54th to arrive. My jagers are here with me.”

Chakrani felt her face go white at the sound of Nochtish words, confirming her fears.

Mansa’s expression briefly darkened. “I believe I was clear that the date was the 53rd.”

“We could potentially make the 53rd, but I am being realistic. You never know what will happen in the field of battle, especially where deception is concerned. I believe in leaving some leg-room available when making predictions.” Von Drachen replied.

“You talk much to say very little, General.” Mansa replied.

“You could stand to talk a little more, Sir.” Von Drachen said, smiling.

For a moment the two men appraised each other in silence.

Mansa steepled his fingers and proceeded with the conversation. “I believe some of us in the room share a mutual acquaintance who is noticeably absent from this discussion.”

“Hmm?” Von Drachen made a noise and stared blankly.

“Ms. Walters, I should very much like for our misguided friend Madiha Nakar to come and sit with us soon. Would it be possible for you to fetch her for us?” Mansa said.

Chakrani felt her insides constrict with dread. All throughout she had been feeling like a hostage trapped in a dangerous situation, and she had been right. This Von Drachen was a man from Nocht and Mansa was plotting something. This was what they wanted her for; they just wanted to get to Madiha and she was the way that they settled on. Her eyes glanced over to the woman at her side, who was still clinging sleepily to her.

Would acknowledging any of this put her in undue danger? Chakrani was not some soldier or spy. She was a young woman under the stars who liked to drink and carouse and make love to women. That she put together these clues was no great feat, she thought. Anyone in this situation would have thought the same. But her sense of self-preservation, more developed than that of a reckless hero, screamed for her to quiet.

In this situation her blood chilled and her heart slowed. She helplessly complied.

“I could certainly try, sir. But would not an official missive be more appropriate?”

She thought the more respectful she acted, the safer she would be.

Mansa smiled. “I’m afraid she has become too unstable for official contact. At this pivotal time in our diplomacy, we cannot afford to let her run rampant. Surely you understand. You know her, after all; she has hurt you before. She cannot be swayed by the law.”

Chakrani felt her tongue grow heavy. Just hearing others speaking about that woman set off a chain reaction of conflicting emotions in Chakrani’s head and heart that she buckled under almost as badly as she did under the anxiety she felt at this predicament.

“Madiha Nakar is difficult sir, but I think if you take a peaceable solution–”

Across the room General Von Drachen’s face lit up with child-like glee.

“Councilman, do you mean to say Sergeant Nakar of Bada Aso fame, is here?” He said.

“Colonel; but yes. She leads the 1st. Regiment her in Rangda. Though I tried to integrate her into our affairs I have found she leans too far from us to be of assistance, as she is now. But I desire to convince her; I’m sure that I can, given time and opportunity.” Mansa said. His voice was taking on a hint of disdain for the General he had so seemingly prized moments ago.

“I’m afraid convincing is out of the question.” Von Drachen clapped his hands. “If you are a man who wishes to neutralize the threat of her, I’m afraid only murder will suffice.”

Chakrani sat up tighter against the backrest of her seat in shock.

Mansa sighed. “We’re not going to murder her.”

“Oh, but you must! She will dismantle any well-laid plans you have with ruthless alacrity unless you let me dislodge her brains into a nearby wall post-haste, my good man!”

Mansa brought his hands up against his face.

“Councilman, what is he talking about?” Chakrani shouted. Some part of her brain simply could not suppress all of the scandal in this room enough to pretend that everything was still fine. In such a complicated situation even her desire to lay low and leave the room unscathed and out of bondage was overwhelmed by her sense of right.

Madiha Nakar was a killer, she had killed before, and she told herself her killing was right; that was the image Chakrani fought to hold in her mind. There were other images, some less grave, some distressingly fond, all of which battled in her mind and rendered her final perception volatile and erratic; but this unified picture was the one she thought she wanted to see. Madiha Nakar was a killer, her father’s killer. And yet, Chakrani would never agree to simply shoot her like an animal behind a shed. In any civilized world she could have been challenged and defeated and tried for her injustice.

That was what Chakrani wanted. She wanted justice! She wanted to be heard!

She wanted to have her suffering redressed! She wanted relief!

She did not want to have Madiha killed!

Every conviction she held screamed now that she had to oppose this meeting.

And yet she was the least of the powers in the room.

Her body remained frozen as the men continued to stare each other down.

Mansa remained speechless. Chakrani almost hoped he was not fully corrupted.

Meanwhile the gleeful Nochtish man seemed confident in his position.

Von Drachen ignored Chakrani’s outburst. “I will tell it to you plainly, Councilman.”

“I do not want to hear it!” Mansa shouted, standing up from his desk.

“You brought me here for a reason–”

“Yes, we have a deal and part of that deal is you listen to me, Cissean!”

Mansa was growing irate; while Von Drachen’s smirking expression never changed.

“We can do nothing about this ‘1st Regiment’ if Madiha Nakar is leading it. You brought me here to help check their power in your city, did you not? You want to remain capable of independent operation? You want to maneuver to power? Well you cannot do any of that effectively unless something is swiftly done about Madiha Nakar’s command.”

“Something will be done!” Mansa replied. “At my discretion, with my methods!”

Chakrani channeled her anxiety into a final surge of bravery. She shouted desperately.

“I have no connection to Madiha Nakar anymore, Councilman! I cannot help you!”

She stood up from her seat and started toward the door.

Click.

Chakrani felt the gun at the nape of her neck and raised her hands.

Behind her, the woman in the dress seemed almost disappointed to have to hold her up.

She was not drunk, nor sleepy; her sexualized act was replaced by cold stoicism.

Chakrani was sure that this woman would shoot. She froze completely.

Mansa sighed ever more deeply. He rubbed his hands over his face again.

“I am so upset right now. I expected all of this to transpire so much more cleanly. Mark my words, Cissean, your superiors will know my displeasure.” He calmly said.

Von Drachen shrugged childishly in response.

“It seems I am doomed never to be listened to.” He cryptically said.

After addressing the General, Mansa turned a stoic eye on Chakrani.

“Child, you will pen a missive and meet Madiha Nakar at a specified location. One of our agents will then persuade her to meet with our Council and make a peace. We will not harm either of you. I am merely answering her obstinacy with my own. A diplomat needs an opportunity to speak. I am merely seizing an opportunity to speak: with Madiha, with Rangda, and ultimately, with Solstice, and with Nocht. I am making my stage here. While the rest of the world devolves to madness, I will make Rangda a pillar of order. Alone, or not.”

Chakrani started to weep. She could not believe that she would come away unharmed from a request made at gunpoint. She had foolishly walked into something awful now. Not even Mansa’s calm and stoic words could assuage her. In fact, the calm with which he spoke made his words even more frightening. He was the most dangerous one here.

What kind of peace would he make with Madiha, when he was already preparing military force against her? What kind of peace could be made with Nocht other than giving up this city to their mercy? He might not kill anyone; but there would be blood nonetheless.

But she was helpless, and could say nothing more than “yes sir,” in a choked voice.

Mansa nodded his head, and raised his hand.

At Chakrani’s back, the woman laid down her weapon.

Mansa’s sweet, almost fatherly demeanor returned as he sat back down.

“I knew you would understand, Ms. Walters. Madiha will listen to you. I’m sure of it. Bring her here, and I will speak a truth to her that will change her outlook.” He said, smiling.


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The Coming Storm (44.1)


48th of the Aster’s Gloom, 2030 D.C.E

Under a sky lit by fireworks and stars, a surging ocean sent a boat careening past the harbor of the Shining Port and smashing through the stone barriers around Tambwe’s upper waters. Pieces of the old fisher washed up along the meter-thin, sandy stretches of beach beneath the cliffs north of Rangda. Puzzled and alarmed by the vessel, Rangdan law enforcement quickly put together a rescue group. Careful to avoid the same fate as the unknowing fisher, Rangdan boats searched carefully along the rocky depths and hidden shallows, while climbing teams dropped down from the cliffs and onto the beaches to comb the debris.

While the rescuers would have rather been drinking and partying under the falling colors of the pyrotechnics displays, they did not openly complain about fulfilling their duties. Rangda was a coastal town, and these people could be fisherfolk and traders that keep the city supplied. Electric torches in hand, the rescuers searched along the beaches, examining the chunks of the boat that had washed up, and keeping an eye out for signs of life. They found pieces of the prow collecting all along the rocks, and identified the boat from one.

It was a Higwean fishing boat, named the Banteng. Judging by all the pieces, it was around ten meters long and not particularly seaworthy. Any expert eye would have found it inconceivable that such a vessel could sail so far from home. Curiously, no net was found, though the boat had its equipment set up for fishing. Having seen this kind of crash occur to larger vessels, the rescuers thought the boat must have been hurled against the rocks by the violent tides and smashed to pieces. There was a slim chance someone survived.

Despite this, for several hours the operation continued.

Though they searched out at sea and beneath the cliffs, all they found was the wreckage. No bodies were found, no personal effects, no signs that the boat had any particular direction. It was as if a ghost fisher had sailed endless days from the Higwe islands just to crash in this lonely strip of rock. Standard procedure dictated the rescue operation would continue where possible until dawn, allowing the sun to shed light on the situation.

Rescuers, however, were more than willing to let this become nothing but a mystery.

To the rescuers, at least for a few hours after dawn, it would remain so.

At the Shining Port, however, a sleepy morning patrolman from the port security found a connected mystery in the form of a pair of unidentified people climbing the port seawall onto one of the warehouse blocks. Spotting them from afar, he at first assumed nothing about the boat crash or security risks, and instead thought they must be port workers or fishers who fell into the water on accident. He ambled over to offer help; then, close enough to get a better look, he saw black leather waterproof cases strapped to their backs.

“Stop!” he shouted, “what are you doing with those? Stop right now!”

He waved his electric torch, the only piece of equipment he was given.

One of the two arrivals then produced a weapon.

At the sight, the port patrolman felt he had died right there in spirit. His whole body tensed, and he took no further step to close the fifty meter gap between him and them.

However, the mysterious man with the waterproof cases put down his gun.

He raised his hands.

He said something in a language the patrolman did not know and kicked the firearm.

It rolled some distance between them.

Confused, the patrolman followed his first instinct and picked up the weapon.

He looked up from the ground as he bent to take the gun.

Neither of the two mysterious port climbers made a move.

Both of them looked rather young.

What were they up to? It was impossible for the patrolman to imagine.

He had heard stories, years ago, of migrants from other nations who tried to take boats illegally into Ayvarta. They were often fleeing the consequences of political actions taken abroad. But these people took boats here. They ended up on the ports and in the beaches. They did not climb sea walls onto the ports. And they did not carry weapons and goods with them! Of course, all of that happened in peacetime, however.

“Easy now,” he said, raising his voice and pointing his newfound zwitcherer pistol at its former owners. He swept his hands toward himself, urging them to follow. They did not appear to share a language with him at all, and so he used his body language to try to communicate. Thankfully, the two strangers, hands up, began to walk as instructed.

Soon he got them to a phone, and called the police. And for a translator. When asked what language he needed to interpret, the patrolman did not know. He had never met an elf or one of the northern barbarians or a hanwan or anything like that; he had no frame of reference. He practically begged the policemen on the line to just take this burden off him.

After he hung up, the wheels of Ayvartan law, lulled to sleep by their distance from battle and by the levity of the last week, began to spin with a sudden, terrifying realization.

By noon, the fate of the Banteng begged more questions than it answered.


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Hell Awakens — Generalplan Suden

 

This chapter contains scenes of mild body horror, mild misogyny, light injury to a child, graphic violence, burning, choking, mental distress, and death.

 

29th of the Yarrow’s Sun, 2007 D.C.E

Adjar Dominance, City of Bada Aso — Central District

She held on to her hat and bag for dear life as she dashed through the Msanii, the traditional marketplace, evading the kiosks and leaping over goods on carpets, her steps barely sounding above the murmur of the crowd. She cast breathless glances over her shoulder.

Was he gone? There people everywhere around her, in robes and shawls and headscarves and long flowing garbs, a few in shirts and overalls — there was only one man in a uniform. Around her the street was thick with people. Dozens of men and women crowded the street.

Today was a festival day; in front of a kiosk a crowd of at least twenty people stood around waiting to purchase a miniature wooden chariot for the Ratha-Yatra festival.

She pushed past them without slowing and ran along the gutter, ducking around the people coming and going on the street, running under carried packages, between the held hands of couples, and through the gaggles of cared-for children visiting with their parents.

Her little heart pounded in her chest. Did she lose him in the market? Though there was only a single package in her satchel it felt incredibly heavy. She had run her thin legs raw.

At the other end of the market street she stopped to catch her breath, thinking that she must have lost the guard in that mess. She looked past and into the throng, gasping. Her chest heaved up and down under her boyish vest and dress shirt. She pressed her hat against her head, tufts of short, straight hair falling over her cheek and ears and the back of her neck.

“Thief! That boy’s a thief! Stop him! Stop that boy! Someone grab his fuckin’ hand, now!”

She saw a headscarf go flying, a box of pastries fall along with a dazed man; the guard was not done with her. She saw him shoving his way through the crowd toward her like a tusk-fiend, and Madiha took off running again, her chest tight, her throat raw, her eyes tearing up. She no longer even knew where she was going now — she hardly ever detoured through the lower central district. The Zaidi, the socialists she worked for, avoided the shadow that the imperial administration cast here. There were more alert guards and one could not bribe them. Any coin in her pockets was useless for this zealous man. He was not bought. He would beat her!

Perhaps she could have run to the house of a Social Democrat here — if the Zaidi weren’t feuding with them at the moment. Instead, all she could do was run into unfamiliar alleys.

She heard his tramping behind her, growing ever closer. She was gasping for every breath. Her legs felt like giving out. She dashed past a dingy little street made up of old stones.

In her satchel she carried a revolver, and she knew if she aimed for his head she could kill him, but it was not dark out, and she knew no place she could lead him to where she could kill him and be completely safe from discovery. She felt it clanking inside her bag, useless.

Over her shoulder she saw him take the corner and reacquire her with his bloodshot eyes.

She bowed her head and swerved into a tight corner — and found a dead end punctuated by a large green metal garbage bin. Unbelieving, she stared at it for a moment. She was trapped.

Madiha rushed to the garbage bin and started to climb it. Then a bullet pierced the lid.

“Stop you fucking rat!” Shouted the guard, in a voice so loud it seemed to resonate within Madiha’s flesh. Though she was seven or eight years old (she knew not with accuracy which one was the case) she was tall for her age, and the guard had only a head on her, but he was burly and rough-looking, with a yellow and red burn scar along his thick neck. In his hands was a concealable revolver that the Imperial police used. They could draw it within a second.

He picked her up as if she weighed nothing, and slammed her against the garbage bin.

She cried out and dropped her bag. Her hat went to the floor. She crumpled against the garbage bin, trying to choke back tears and all kinds of miserable sounds. She thought she felt a rip in her vest, along her back; she thought she felt a rip in her spine, it hurt so much.

The Guard hovered over her, staring at her quizzically for a moment. He looked around the alley, and he looked behind himself. There was nobody around. There were tiny windows on the left-hand building enclosing the alley, and he looked into them and seemed satisfied nobody was watching. He produced his truncheon and prodded Madiha, lifting up her chin, pressing against her stomach, tapping her on the peak of the head a little too roughly.

“Shit, you’re a girl? Spirits defend.” The Guard spat on the floor of the alley. “Woulda hit you less hard. Fuck you dressing up like that for? What’s the world coming to these days?”

Madiha breathed roughly and silently. She hadn’t worn a dress or a shari and parkar in over a year. To her none of this meant “dressing like a boy” — but the city as a whole cared little.

The Guard picked up her bag and withdrew the package. He was quick about it. He knew all along that she must have been ferrying something important. Kids carried all kinds of things in bags in Bada Aso. Gangs used kids to steal things or to transport money. Madiha’s satchel was a special brand of bag that was big and light and popular with working homeless kids. Most gangs made you steal your own bag, but Madiha had gotten hers from the Zaidis.

“Should’ve stopped when I told you. If your mother ain’t gonna learn you, I will.”

Madiha laid against the garbage bin, her spine screaming with agony. She felt like bending double and rolling up into a ball, but she was in too much pain to move. Nobody had ever hit her so hard in her life — and she had been hit a few times before. This was different. She thought this must have been what it was like to be hit by someone trying to kill you.

A shadow obscured her, and the Guard knelt down. He pressed the letter against her face, and waved the paper cruelly and mockingly against her nose, flicking the tip with the envelope.

“What’re you carrying here? Tell me who gave you this. You tell me here and you can go, but if you don’t I’m gonna have to take you down to the guard house.” He said.

She struggled to make any kind of acknowledgement. She stared at him; she glared.

“Giving me the evil eye? Ain’t nobody gonna care about one less little vagrant on the street. You tell me something right now or you’ll be leaving without teeth, and trust me, there hasn’t been a single happily married girl in this city lately who’s been missing her pearly whites.”

Madiha said nothing back to him. She stared right into his eyes as if through him. She struggled to breathe. Her head was turning hot; a red haze that obscured the edges of her vision.

He took his truncheon again and he raised it up into the air to beat her over the head.

“Don’t touch me!” Madiha shouted. She waved her arm as if slapping him away.

At once, the Guard’s legs swept out from under him, and a force drove into his gut in mid-air and sent him crashing back hard onto the stones. He squirmed on the ground.

Madiha struggled to stand, and hobbled toward the man. He stretched along the floor in pain, disoriented, twitching. He swept his leg impotently at her and nearly tripped her up. She fell on her knees over him, and she pushed her hands against his head as if she were trying to pump something into his skin. At once, his eyes went glassy. He babbled for a second.

She felt the power in her fingers, coursing through him, forming a connection. Flashes of vague thoughts and emotions seeped from his mind to her own. She saw in him a desperate, chained-up monstrous thing, and she set it ablaze, and it howled and screamed until it died.

Then he remained quiet, placid, staring at the sky as if he had found a new dimension to the color blue. Madiha had wiped out all of his aggression — and maybe other things with it.

Her own mind recovered from the eldritch process with astonishing quickness.

She caught her breath and stood slowly up, gently helping herself upright by the wall. Her back was in terrible pain still, but she could walk and given a bit of effort she could even run. She picked up her satchel, and took the letter from the floor and put it back. She would have to explain what happened, but at least today’s delivery was to Chinedu Kimani. Anyone else and she might have felt anxious explaining, but Kimani would understand what happened.

Madiha Nakar, the favored courier of the Zaidi socialists of Bada Aso, took off running again. Her routine consisted of running, and fighting was not unknown to her. Though she was little and still feeling shocks of what had transpired, she would not let it stop her. It was not only her height and precocious intellect that drew the Zaidi to her. It was not even the strange abilities she exhibited. Above all else what they prized was her conviction.

Unlike the other children conscripted around Bada Aso, Madiha Nakar was a volunteer.

 

* * *

A nascent Bada Aso, little more than stones at the edge of the sea, labored to renew a cycle.

Skies unfathomably ancient watched as the young race below meddled with forces quite beyond their understanding. Chanting overwhelmed the natural song of the night. Figures danced under the dark. Naked men and women traced dizzying patterns with their sweating, gyrating bodies. Shadows played about the stones. The People screamed and struggled for the primordial lifegiver to accept their offerings, and to keep the world moving, sweating, burning.

Clad in pelts and tusks, the Seer left the dance near the apex of its sound. Dusts were cast into the bonfire and it raged ever higher; the dancers, the chanters and drummers stamped and screamed and beat louder, working their bodies raw from a pleasurable fatigue to an exquisite pain. The Seer approached the edge of the Umaiha and followed the riverside below the earth. In the seaside caverns and tunnels beneath the sacred site rich, thick fumes from the soil’s underbelly overcame the senses and brought visions to the religious mind. Arms and legs shaking, the seer fell to the floor, knees quaking against the stone, hands thrust skyward, taking deep, greedy breaths. Sickly sour gas burnt the nostrils and eyes and spun shapes in the air.

Hours passed. Gradually the dance worked itself down from its climax. Leaning on a stick, feet unstable, stomach churning, the Seer returned to the circle of stones. Before the fire, the fumes escaped from the Seer’s throat and nostrils. Suddenly the fire rose, higher than ever, and threatened to consume the Seer. Flames spun across the circle like ribbons in the wind.

In the middle of the bonfire appeared the Warlord, the executioner that fanned the flames.

Madiha Nakar stood in the midst of shadowed figures vaguely in the shape of Ayvartan men and women. She was not naked like them; her ahistorical military uniform had traveled to the world of the visions with her. It was the anchor of her sanity within this false antiquity.

The Seer’s featureless face suddenly split down the middle, and Madiha saw a flash of teeth.

“Cunning, Command, Fearlessness, Ferocity.” It said. This mockery of her people’s shape could no longer replicate their voices to her. She knew it for what it was — a figment meant to control her. A familiar of some millennia-removed shaman, dragged from the shadows into her head. Its voice was a series of harsh, seemingly unrelated noises that produced words in her mind.

“I know what you are, and to a certain measure, I know what I am.” Madiha said decisively.

On the Seer’s split mockery of a face the teeth ground. “To a certain measure? You don’t really know anything. Your kind can’t know anymore. You’re in a world long past able to know.”

Madiha had no answer to that. Magic was dead in their world. He was correct about that.

He seemed to take her silence as a personal triumph, and he started to speak without pause.

“Madiha Nakar, there is only one reason we speak.” So fervently did the mouth now speak that the upper half of its face quivered and shook and thrashed about like the top of a hood. Madiha felt a certain disgust. It was almost painful to stare at this fiend. “Madiha Nakar, you are again chosen. Once before, we met; but you are a different person now, a different candidate, for a different event. Each Warlord is appointed to carry the primordial fury of Ayvarta to a stage of history. You will continue a cycle that has sustained life for millennia. In this age of ignorance you will give nourishment to the flame, as your predecessors have done. You will be hated, and ultimately, destroyed. You will be the monster of your era. You are the martyr of a blind race.”

“Ayvartans, or humans as a whole?” Madiha asked, eyes still averted from the monster.

Vertical rows of teeth clicked and clacked but offered no audible explanation to her.

“You have been the source of much confusion and suffering for me. I demand an answer.”

A bloated black tongue escaped the teeth and seemed to mock her. Wild laughter ensued.

“I am here to see the ancient will carried out and nothing more. I have done only what was necessary to see the flame set alight for this generation. That is my destiny, and your own.”

Madiha felt the burning in her. She felt the heat trace every sinew in her brain, she felt the power like a pressure against her eyesockets. When she opened and closed her fingers she felt the potential, thrumming inside of her, the latent ability to invoke something alien, strong. This was with her now, every second of the day, fading into the background. It was like the sensation of wearing clothes. She knew how it felt to be bare, but clothes still felt like a second skin.

She remembered what she did as a child, what she had practiced, and she held out her left hand toward the monster. Something swept out toward the beast, but only in her recollection of the moment; in reality the power was noiseless, and had no tell. Madiha moved her arms and in an instant the creature roiled, as though being boiled in mid-air, its black shape bubbling.

“You can’t do this.” There was no pain or distress in its false voice despite the thrashing and shaking of its oozing, shadowy body. Its teeth clattered and snapped but made no sound.

“I am doing it.” It took no effort on her part to double the pressure. Its body collapsed, becoming ever more shapeless and inky, spilling on the floor like a puddle of blood.

“It is your destiny. It is imprinted on you. It is in our flesh. It is in our soul. We cannot escape the blood. Your destiny; our destiny; the people’s destiny; has been an unbroken line traced from antiquity to modernity. Cycle after cycle, we have witnessed it. We are slaves to it.”

“We? So you want to be a part of this now? But you can’t disguise yourself as me anymore.”

“So long as you desire to inflict the burning you must acknowledge yourself, myself, and us.”

Madiha grinned. “I acknowledge that I possess a monstrous ability and I even acknowledge that it may have the history you claim it does; but I refuse the extent of your predestination. I am nobody’s slave; and you are unnecessary to my functioning. I am going to excise you.”

A soundless scream escaped its gnashing mouth. “You will feed the flame. Your era of ignorance still needs the flame. Your kind will never outgrow the flame. There must always be fuel that burns for humankind to see in the shadow. It is in your nature. It is necessary.”

“You are not human and you can never know. You are a tool created by a people that has seen midnight. Your world may never change but mine visibly has.” Madiha replied.

Sound returned. Now she heard the sloshing of its thrashing body, the gnashing of its teeth. Its voice finally took on an affect. It was furious. “I will return; when you lie broken in the soil, stomped to pieces by every foot in the world, a hated thing, an unloved thing, a thing, nothing but broken and befouled meat; Ayvarta will select another of your kind to carry its wrath.”

“You are not Ayvarta.” Madiha said. “Ayvarta has changed. It has transformed beyond you.”

He said that too; and you destroyed everything he built. Human works are temporary. Each of you has tried to defy your fate and your fate has always overcome you. I am the part of you that is eternal. I am the only part of you that will ever matter to the natural order of the world.”

“Humans are not immutable. They are self-constructed in many ways. You admit you are part of me. Then you are a human work too. And you are right, human works are temporary.”

She made a visible effort, and the force inflicted upon the being was finally too much for it.

Under the creature’s black, inky flesh a red core flashed brightly and then collapsed. As if draining through a hole in the world the creature tore away from existence altogether. Everything started to quiver and to shake itself apart. Overhead the sky fell, and around her the stones ground to powder. Finally, brick by brick the Bada Aso she knew came into sharp relief.

Madiha was no longer in the vision of an ancient, wild Ayvarta where a fractious people fought their separate wars to escape depredation; she was in a new Ayvarta that needed protecting.

Things would be different this time. She had to believe that. Though she knew that when she woke her resolve would wane against the harsh material world, she tasted the surety of the vision world for as long as she could, and for once, she drew strength from it instead of fear.

 

35th of the Aster’s Gloom, 2030 D.C.E

Adjar Dominance, City of Bada Aso — South District, 1st Vorkampfer HQ

“Damn it all! This fucking rock! There’s always another problem here isn’t there?”

Von Sturm ripped the marked-up map from the table and threw it into the air in disgust. Around him his planning staff looked demoralized. A few meekly recovered the map but did not dare to present it to the General again. Fruehauf watched from the corner, waiting to relay orders back to the field. She was anxious enough she nearly forgot to breathe.

“Patriarch?” A call came in. Fruehauf responded affirmatively, and the man commenced with his report. “We have begun clearing the minefields. They were very sloppily placed, but the concentrations are huge. I’ve already lost one man to them. We are looking for alternative passages but there’s no other roads north that can support a broad front approach.”

“I understand. Have the Ayvartan forces made any show of force? Aircraft or shelling?”

“Nothing whatsoever. It’s like they’ve vanished into thin air. But they made damn sure to booby trap every good road before they did. We’re still taking precautions just in case.”

“Indeed. A single shot from that heavy cruiser in the port could be deadly to your operations. Be ready to evacuate in case anything happens. But try to clear out at least one road north. Concentrate your efforts. The General considers this task valuable and pressing.”

“Yes ma’am. Tell him if he wants it to go any faster he should send us more bangalores.”

He took his leave and returned to his work. Fruehauf thought the man’s tone a little inappropriate, but she kept it to herself. Throughout the front the troops were losing faith and respect in General Von Sturm. She, who worked closely with him, had a dimmer view from the outset, but most of his troops had been loyal to him, and they had been ready to defer to his commands earnestly. Now even his 13th Panzergrenadiers were embittered.

She turned from the radio and approached the table, her clipboard pressed over her chest.

“Sir, we’ve received word that the minefields are being cleared as quickly as possible.”

Von Sturm raised his eyes from the table to Fruehauf’s face. He gestured to the table.

“You’re always standing up. Sit down, you’re making me nervous.” He said softly.

Fruehauf nodded, and took a chair. Her heart raced. Beside Von Sturm the rest of the chairs on the table were vacant. Von Drachen had not returned to the HQ since yesterday.

“How are we doing on moving materiel to the central district?” He asked.

“We’re going slower than expected. With the port captured and threatening the eastern section, and our horses having to move around that gaping hole in Matumaini, and the flood damage in Umaiha, we have very few paths we can move supplies through.” Fruehauf said.

“I’m willing to put off a large-scale attack another day.” Von Sturm said.

Fruehauf nodded. This was not in the plan they discussed yesterday, but at this point it would come as a welcome relief to everyone. “What about the combat patrols moving north?”

“I was getting to that.” Von Sturm said, raising his voice, but not to the level of aggravation he exhibited in days past. “Continue the minefield clearing. That must be our top priority. When it becomes possible, I want a mechanized platoon moving up through Karkala and Main.”

“Same mission as outlined yesterday?” Fruehauf asked, holding her pen to her clipboard.

“Expand the timetable, but yes. I want them to search for the enemy. I don’t want them to engage unless they feel they have found a weakness, because heavy reinforcement will not be ready to support them. But we need to find the Ayvartans. We need to find them.”

“I understand sir. I will convey your orders to the troops.” Fruehauf said.

“Right.” Von Sturm steepled his fingers. “Hey. Listen, Fruehauf. You– you’re doing good work. You clearly know– you know how a radio works.” He was hesitating a little as he spoke.

“Yes sir.” Fruehauf said, puzzled. This was coming too little and too late for her.

“Out of everyone here, I, well, I can’t blame you. You’ve been doing your job.” He added.

“Thank you sir.” She replied. She wasn’t exactly smiling. This all was hard to respond to.

He looked to his side at nothing in particular, perhaps just to avoid looking at her anymore.

Fruehauf took this as her cue to return to her radios. She wanted to sigh and maybe shake her head, but if the General was in a pensive mood, then at least he wasn’t in a raging one.

 

Southwest District, Penance Road

Kern remembered the man’s name, thank god. It was Voss. He didn’t recall the first name. He would avoid using it. He just needed to call him Voss and that would satisfy everything.

Technically, Kern should have been going to a hospital as well, but after having fragments extracted and a roll of bandages around his chest and back, he requested and received special permission to walk it off because he was part of a headquarters company. Before anything else happened he needed to see Voss — particularly because his name was starting to mix in Kern’s mind with Schloss, when he remembered the names at all. Voss had been transferred from the old field hospital to a more sturdy and intact building just off of Penance road.

As he walked along the road west from the South district, he saw a tank with an anti-air gun hitched crudely to its back plate, dragging it along the road up to the defensive line that had been hastily assembled the day before. There would be no movement forward in the West, not with that Ayvartan naval group holding the port. Penance was very tense. Kern could see the Cathedral from afar as he neared. He remembered the division fighting hard to secure it.

Kern checked his map. He found himself soon in front of the new field hospital, set inside a tenement with twenty little apartments. It was a red brick building, tall and wide, and a white cross had been painted on it so that it could be quickly identified. Past the door, a young woman asked for his credentials and whom he wanted to see. Kern showed her the letter that Captain– Lieutenant Aschekind had signed for him. She nodded, and led him up one floor.

Each apartment contained a little reading room with a table, a couch and bookshelves, a little bedroom off of a side door, and a bathroom and shower off another door. For space concerns, the reading room had been cleared out and two beds installed there. A man in a full body cast occupied one bed. On the other was Voss, sleeping; his dark blond hair had been cropped, and his patchy facial hair had been shaved completely, but he looked familiar enough nevertheless. His arm was still in a sling but he looked otherwise unharmed and seemed healthy.

“You can wait until he wakes. He’s in good condition, so don’t worry.” said the nurse.

When the nurse left, Voss opened one of his eyes and watched her depart the room.

“Didn’t want another round of annoying questions.” He said. He cocked a grin. “Kern, you look grown-up, and it’s only been ten days. I don’t think I can call you ‘my boy’ or anything now.”

He laughed. Kern smiled. He did not feel any bigger. He had been a fairly average guy, average height, average build; he had never forced himself. He had been told he had a handsome face, a boyish youthful face, a few times. In the mirror set down near the beds for examinations, he thought he looked as soft and young as always. His cropped blonde hair hadn’t grown out much since Matumaini, and there were only a few intermittent flecks of gold along his lips, chin and cheek. Nothing that a shave wouldn’t fix and return to how it was. Voss was exaggerating.

“You can look in the mirror all you want, but I remember, Kern. It’s on your face, but it’s a part you can’t see for yourself in a mirror. It’s a part you show to others without knowing. Seeing you I feel like you must have been through some shit this past week. I wish I could have been there to help. They’ve been pulling metal out of me for a while now.” Voss replied.

“Nurse said you were doing better. I think you’ll be able to leave soon.” Kern said.

“I don’t think so. My arm is still a complete mess. That’ll take more than ten days. Good god; ten days though. Can you believe that? Take a hit, and you’re out the whole battle. How do we sustain this?” Voss said. He looked over at the fully-bandaged man beside him.

“That’s what the rest of the Division is for, I think.” Kern said, smiling at him again.

“You got jokes now! See, you’re starting to learn how to deal with it.” Voss replied.

Kern pulled up a little chair that was set near the wall, and sat in front of Voss’ bed.

“Thanks for the visit, by the way. It’s nice to see a different face around here.” Voss said.

“Voss, I,” Kern hesitated for a moment, feeling the words caught in his throat. It felt at once both stupid to worry about but also terrible to admit. “I forgot your name for a while, Voss. And I completely forgot the names of the two men who died with us. I’ve forgotten the names of the guys who died with me yesterday. I don’t know what is happening. I feel like I’m going nuts.”

Kern thought he must have been annoying the poor man; lying injured in a bed, finally receiving a visit, and discovering it’s just a kid looking for comfort. He felt terrible, but Voss did not chastise him. He did not even sigh or shake his head. His tone of voice was unchanged.

“You’re not going nuts, Kern. Everyone is just trying to survive. It’s not training camp and it’s not a social experience. We are not bonding out here. You can’t blame yourself. Wanna know their names? Hart and Alfons. You know what? I don’t even know if those were first or last.”

“They fought alongside us!” Kern said. “They died alongside us! Least we could do is–”

“You can’t turn yourself into a walking gravestone for everyone, Kern.” Voss said. “Had you come here without knowing my name, I’d have just told you my name. You’re the only guy in this entire army who has deigned to visit me except for staff officers who needed to input me into their fucking charts. We met one day for a few hours. I don’t expect you to know my life’s story, and if I die, I don’t expect you to carry my ashes with you. In fact, I forbid that.”

Kern closed his fists against his legs, feeling helpless and weak. He thought Voss would know something that could help him assuage all of the guilt he felt for all those thousands of men he had seen die across the ten miserable days of this ground battle. Kern could not have saved them, and could only vaguely remember them in death. He felt that it was certainly irrational, but he still felt quite broken up over them. Why, out of all of them, had he survived?

He thought that Lieutenant Aschekind saw something in him too. Through all of this, Lieutenant Aschekind knew that Kern would survive. He saw something in Kern that made him reliable, but what could that even be? Kern was a subpar soldier. He was fearful, unskilled.

“So hey, I heard a kid from the 6th Division finally killed that beast of a tank the Ayvartans had been hounding us with.” Voss said. “Hit it with a Panzerwurfmine. Was that you, Kern?”

Kern looked up from his own feet. He turned bashful. “I didn’t really do anything.”

“You kidding? You know how many tanks we lost trying to take out that monster?”

“It was all Captain– Lieutenant Aschekind’s doing, really. I just got lucky in the end.”

“Whatever you say; but if that were me I’d be asking for a promotion.” Voss replied.

“I actually got demoted, same as all of Aschekind’s HQ platoon. I was Private 1st Class for a few days, and now I’m a Private again because it is impossible to demote me to Kadet.”

Voss burst out laughing. “That’s the brass for you. Nobody’s ever on their good side.”

“I met General Von Sturm once. He came off like someone short on patience..” Kern said.

“Don’t let anyone catch you saying that.” Voss said, still light-hearted and jovial. “Least of all the good General, because you’re quite right about his demeanor. And he doesn’t take kindly to people being right, let me tell you! Though, this is all hearsay on my part. Who knows?”

“It sounds right.” Kern said. “I think hearsay on this General is easy to believe so far.”

“I have heard that the battle is not going exactly as planned. We might need reinforcements.”

“Well, we have them somewhere, so I suppose we can keep going.” Kern said. He looked out the window. He thought he saw a bird, and he had not seen any for a while. But it was nothing.

“It’s not about the reinforcements though. The General’s original plan has completely fallen through now. He will lose prestige. Right now, everything coming in from the Fatherland has to arrive by ship to Cissea or Mamlakha. The General has cost the army a lot of equipment they have to ship in from overseas. I wager he knows that any replacements the army gets are gonna be attached to a new General to replace him; so has to try his hardest with what he’s got here to win before any help arrives. That’s the politics of this army, I’m afraid.” Voss replied.

“I did not consider that at all.” Kern said. He felt foolish. It truly had not crossed his mind that just as Von Sturm demoted Aschekind and him, someone could do the same to Von Sturm. In his mind that did not absolve the General; he still felt quite ill at ease with the man’s demeanor, what little of it he had been exposed to. But he better understood the man’s zeal and rage now.

“Folks getting shot at tend not to. Politics are the luxury of the officers.” Voss said.

“I wonder if it’s the same for them.” Kern said. He nodded out the window — he meant the communists, their enemy. He wondered suddenly whether there was an Ayvartan out there talking to his buddy in the hospital about their own Generals, about their own politicians, about whether they had to be fighting this war right now. How different was life for the Ayvartans compared to his own? “Do you think they are angry right now about how their commanders have used them? Both sides have taken casualties in the tens of thousands by now, if we count the wounded and ill and dead together. They must be feeling disillusioned like us.”

“I don’t doubt the politics are similar, but they are probably glad to fight because it’s their home they’re fighting for.” Voss said. “It’s always hardest on the invader, whatever the intelligence officers tell you. They told us we had all the advantages, but look how that ended up. Home field advantage is a hell of a thing. I bet you the Ayvartans are quite motivated to fight.”

Always hardest for the invader? Kern found that difficult to believe. Had this battle played out in Kern’s home, in Oberon, he would have felt much more hopeless than he did. Right now he felt awful for having re-learned the names of men who died beside him. Now that they had faces again in his mind he felt like he had done them a disservice, and he felt helpless in the face of the suffering they must have gone through. Had those people been dear to him, he would surely have been devastated. He wouldn’t have been able to go on after the first.

Could the Ayvartans really stand like stone as their family and friends were endangered in this fight? That did not sound right. All other things being similar, certainly this was a fight harder on the Ayvartans. This was their city that had been bombed and invaded. These had been their homes and places of work. Kern did not know much about their culture, but they couldn’t have felt that differently from him. They must have felt that this was a useless sacrifice that got nobody nowhere, just like he felt. He wondered dimly who all of them blamed for all of this–

But he stopped thinking about that quickly; it made him feel sick to ponder it all.

“I think I should go, Voss. Don’t want to overstay my welcome, and you look a little sleepy.”

“Hey, don’t worry about overstaying, it’s not like I’ve got people lining up at the door to talk to me. But if you must, then go with God, my man; and thank you for coming.” Voss said.

Kern nodded. He reached out a hand and shook Voss’ good arm. He stood slowly up from the chair and set it back along the wall where he found it before letting himself out of the room.

“Kern!”

At the doorway Kern turned around, puzzled. Voss sat up on the bed and waved at him.

“My name is Johannes Voss. I come from Rhinea. My father was a banker, and I hate his guts. He left my mother behind, and she is a typist at a law firm. That’s about it.” Voss said.

“I’m Kern Beckert; and I’m just a farmer’s boy from Oberon, Corporal.” Kern said.

Voss laughed. “Nah, I think you’ll be more than that someday. I can guarantee it.”

 

Bada Aso Tunnels, Various

Everything was being decided underground, and by then everyone understood what was transpiring. All that was left was to execute, and then to stand witness the aftermath.

Bada Aso’s tunnels had always had a reputation but few understood their true significance.

Word had always traveled about what those tunnels could have contained. For outsiders it was grizzly ritual and savage anarchy; those who knew the history knew the labyrinth was linked to community and to culture. As always, the outside looking in failed to see right in Ayvarta.

Bada Aso had always possessed a complicated underbelly beneath its rocky skin. Many of its earliest tunnels were natural, thought to have been made by water struggling to make its way to sea. These paths had been charted and traveled across Ayvarta’s antiquity, trod on first by the religious and later by the curious, by the adventurous, and by those without option.

When the water was redirected and the earth sculpted to suit the needs of the Emperor, the same hands that dried the tunnels out began to reinforce and expand them. Some were dug to hunt for precious stone and ore; a few became the sewers; others were defensive in nature.

Through the ages the scent had been characterized differently. Ancient sages thought it invoked religious visions. Early imperials thought it was the breath of the old earth and ignored it entirely. Late imperials, influenced by the ideas and religion of the northern empires, feared the illnesses and curses that the old fumes could carry and took precautionary measures.

Every administration had some plan or other to make use of the tunnels but only Madiha Nakar would come to unleash the strength building beneath that cage of clay and stone.

With every meter, the machines drove farther away from modernity and closer to antiquity. Trundling through the widest, deepest tunnels, the radio-controlled Goblins had no noses with which to smell the fumes, but faced unique challenges in navigating the old underground.

Below the city the radio signal that controlled the teletanks proved unreliable even despite the upgrades, and so the tanks started and stopped in the dark, hitching forward little by little. When the rock was porous or the earth separating it from the surface thin, they hit a stride.

But it was difficult for the controllers to calculate how far they had been able to go.

There were three key points in the city that had to be hit all at once for the plan to work. And it was not a matter of being positioned in the right places. The Goblins had to plumb the tunnels deep enough under the earth, where the most thick and volatile pockets were concentrated.

It simply had to work. They hunkered down, kept pushing forward, and some of them prayed.

Communication to the goblins was spotty, but communication out to sea was perfect. Each control Hobgoblin would receive the signal from the command staff aboard the Revenant. They would set off the Goblin’s weapons and then they would flee inside their vehicles as best as they could. For the two in the eastern sector, fleeing into the Kalu to join Kimani’s retreating troops was an option. For the control Hobgoblin in the north, escape into Tambwe was a possibility.

Though their mission no longer required suicide, safety was not at all guaranteed to them.

However, the KVW officers in each control tank knew that, in putting themselves in danger, and even in dying, they gave tens of millions of their comrades a chance against Nocht. They had proven that they could defend from Nocht, that they could blunt their assaults, that they could fight their technology in the right circumstances and avoid defeat, if not win.

It was not about sacrifice; sacrifice implied a surrender, kneeling before a cruel fate.

They could not win the Battle of Bada Aso. In their hearts everyone knew this whether or not they knew the exact details of the Hellfire Plan. They could not drive Nocht from the city.

But it had long since become about something more than the city. This city or any city.

Over the radio the unencrypted message transmitted suddenly and proudly on all channels.

Draw blood from the stone,” the message said, first in Ayvartan, then in Nochtish.

One by one, the control tank crews deployed the flamethrowers on their remote Goblins.

Madiha Nakar understood, under the driving rains of the autumn storms, that people did not come to Bada Aso to die, and that it was not sacrifice that her troops imagined when they fought for her. Even though Bada Aso would have to die for the resistance to continue, she was not sacrificing the city. It was time for the city itself to fight, using the means that it had.

City of Bada Aso, Various

Awakened by the flames, the ancient fury of Bada Aso rushed through every crack in the earth.

It was not immediate; it began with a sucking, a booming, and then the scent of death. Roads began to tear imperceptibly, like hairline fractures on black glass; buildings trembled slightly, enough to shake dust from them, and there was a general quaking, the stirring of a great beast.

Every Landser or Panzergrenadier who heard the gentle murmur of oncoming doom thought that it must have been a distant shell, perhaps from the enemy cruiser. They raised their heads at the sound, and looked in the distant as if they would see the blast. Very few sought cover.

Over the radio, confused murmuring was exchanged by the few attentive radio personnel.

Those distant-sounding blasts did not unfold where any eye could see them. Underground the stampeding death hit pockets of volatile gas like a herd through rock walls, hungrily tracing air and fuel alike as if following a light out of the tunnels, punching its way through the earth, past the brick and rock and clay. Penetrating ever skyward, desperate, manic, unstoppable, gasping and gasping. It burst through to the sewer, and took a massive breath of surface air.

Across the ancient city the grand conflagration forced its way as if back toward the sun.

Manhole covers expulsed from their holes flew like the thrown chakrams of long-gone gods; great belching torrents of flame ripped from the floors of buildings and expanded out the doors and windows. Pillars of fire rose from every exposed tunnel entrance. Cellar doors exploded and great waves of hot pressure blew through alleys and into the road. Streaks and ribbons of flame swept across the streets. Weaker buildings flew everywhere in pieces, leaving behind fleeting geysers; larger buildings spewed fire for a second like the burners atop a stove.

The Panzergrenadiers across the Central Sector found themselves caught in an infernal monsoon. Dozens of men standing in the wrong place on “Home” were thrown bodily as if slapped off the earth by a giant hand. Their vehicles flew from the earth with them or burst into pieces around them. Those standing nearest to the conflagration burst into flames almost immediately, while those meters away found wisps of fire crawling up their pants and sleeves like whining imps. Men lost their composure and screamed that Ayvarta’s demons had finally seized on them, and they rolled and thrashed and ran as the world collapsed around them.

After the initial explosions fickle flames leaped intermittently out from under buildings. Fire spread from the tunnels and the doors into the street, casting terrifying waves of flame that made shapes in the air like the cackling grins of wraiths. In the smoke and the fire they saw gaping maws that opened to swallow bodies whole, slashing claws that picked men and launched them against the concrete, mad eyes that scanned the surroundings for victims.

Under strain the battered streets of “Home” split, the cracks expanding a few centimeters, enough to be noticed, and enough to vent the earth’s fury. Foul smelling gases leaked into the street and where they met stray tongues of flame they exploded over the road like hellish bubbles, blasting apart armor and gun shields and turrets and tearing to pieces any men unprotected from their wrath. Those men not burnt started to cough and choke and they ran as far as they could from the deadly fireworks spontaneously setting off a show at their backs.

In the first minute thousands of fires erupted from the Central District to kill thousands of men, and quickly spread. In the North District buildings began to explode unseen by the Nochtish troops lagging behind nor by the Ayvartan troops already long-gone. Near the Umaiha district fuel leaking from wrecks and ruins lit the river and its surroundings ablaze. Ancillary buildings in the Southern Districts spontaneously caught fire, the inferno’s potential hampered there by the number of tunnel closings the Ayvartans had to perform in self-defense.

Across Bada Aso old factories exploded the most violently, going off like gigantic fragmentation rounds and scattering volleys of metal tools and equipment left behind into the surroundings, large and fast enough to reduce every building around them to rubble and any men to meat.

Two minutes in and clouds of smoke blinded any survivors. Standing in the street was like walking in front of an oven. Those who were issued such tools and remembered to use them strapped masks over their faces and shambled in the inferno, disoriented, deafened, some temporarily, some not. For many the surroundings were consumed in smoke with flashes of red and orange within them. Those unlucky enough found themselves instead in the middle of great vermilion labyrinths, wildfires spreading across buildings as easily as they did on trees.

Those alive and able to breathe saw, within that incoherent instant, a world consumed in fire, pockmarked by the dead, where wrecked vehicles stood as if they had self-destructed in place, where the sky was red and black, where every building was a burning pillar. As they inched forward, trembling, buildings began to collapse, their foundations too battered to stand. Those aware enough and gripped enough by desperate panic started to run. Many stood before the flames and rubble and died in spirit before the avalanche of a falling building claimed them.

Within the rage there were pockets of peace, as if gates to another world. A lack of tunnel connections, blocked tunnels, or the utter absence of gas, or the absence of anything to burn, rendered these areas safe. After three minutes, the worst of the explosions had passed, and there remained only the slow and spreading burn. Those survivors who found safety could turn around and stare helplessly at the slowly enveloping fires. Many fell on their knees and prayed.

Through its tens of thousands of years Bada Aso had stored enough rage for three minutes, and in that time frame it inflicted more casualties than the Line Corps who had evacuated the city.

Bada Aso was left an inferno that would burn and burn unchecked across the days to come.

 

Southwest District, Penance Road

Massive pillars of smoke streaked from the city like the effluvia of a volcanic eruption.

Kern woke on his back in the middle of the street. He coughed, but he could still breathe. He saw the smoke rising in the distance, but near him he only smelled something foul. There was a fire burning somewhere — he felt the far-away heat. His vision swam. He had hit his head, he thought. What had happened? Blood started to trickle down the bridge of his nose.

He tried to take in his surroundings and he realized there was not just one fire. Across both streets all the houses seemed to be smoking, and several had caught fire. A few had already collapsed under their own weight, but this did not smother the flames. Kern tried to walk before his mind had fully caught up to him, and he tripped on a gash in the middle of the road. It was as if the skin of the earth was tearing and bleeding something foul.

As he stood from the floor he saw the tenement in the distance surrounded by smoke. Several windows belched more smoke into the sky and he saw orange flashing inside.

Kern took off running for the tenement, shouting, “Voss! Voss!” as if the man could hear.

Several figures with gas masks hauled bodies out the front door; whether alive or dead Kern did not know. Outside the nurses checked on each person quickly, affixing oxygen masks and lung pumps. A woman screamed for Kern to return but he was not listening to her or anyone. He was not even listening to his own mind that screamed and screamed for him to turn away.

He charged up the stairs, and found the second floor hall ablaze. Dancing fires shrieked and howled from various rooms, gradually spreading to the floor and the walls, eating away at the building. Smoke blew every which way. His whole body stung, his skin felt dry and hot, his clothes felt like hot blankets smothering him. As he stepped into the hall a pair of men shouted at him and ran past with a body in tow. Was everyone dead? They couldn’t be, they just–

Disoriented and too impulsive to keep thinking, Kern hurtled forward, covering his face with his hands. He slammed through the door of a room and founds a small fire and no occupants. He kicked down the door opposite and found a massive hole that he nearly fell into. Below him there was a red-hot pyre from several rooms worth of piled burning rubble that had fallen in.

He grabbed his head, bit his lips, his head pounding and his eyes hot and unbearable.

Then he remembered where Voss’ door had been. He doubled back down the hall and smashed through a weak door into a half-collapsed room. He felt like he had opened a door to an oven, hot smoke blew against his face, and he felt pinpricks of agonizing heat like knife-tips scratching his skin. Inside the room he found one bed overturned and another burning under rubble fallen from the roof. There was a body turned to charcoal beneath the mess.

He let out a scream and stamped his feet, gritting his teeth, struggling even to weep. As if all at once he saw that massive beastly tank, he saw those planes, he saw the entrenched machine guns, all flying in the smoke and the fire, fighting and fighting, there again to kill him–

Not again, he couldn’t take another death of a man he knew, not today, not now–

Side-rooms! Kern charged past the overturned bed and pounded his shoulder against the locked door. Under this stress the door hinges snapped entirely, and he fell with the door into the bathroom. Huddling beside the toilet, he found Voss in his robes. Voss coughed and looked at him as if seeing a ghost. “Kern?” He said, his voice sounding hollow and forlorn.

Kern did not respond, and instead picked up the man as best as he could and struggled out of the room. He gathered enough momentum to run, and got out into the hall. Ahead of him the fires had spread from every conceivable angle. Taking a deep, hot breath of what little air was left, Kern reared back and then ran past the wall of flames. His pants and shoes caught fire, and he kicked out his legs violently as he ran to try to put them down. He charged down the steps.

Under his feet several of the steps collapsed, and he went tumbling down with Voss in tow.

Everything was spinning, and the pain in his legs started tracing up to his back. He did not know whether he was on the floor or still falling. He could not feel anything at all. He could not see Voss. Had another man died on his watch? Had he failed again to make any difference?

Then something icy cold shook him. He felt the ground sliding from under him. He was wet.

Out of the burning building the masked men pulled him and Voss and set them against a solid wall across the street. Behind them, a Squire B half-track towing a fire hose and water tank arrived, and men from the rescue unit in special suits rushed in to fight the flames.

Kern’s vision stabilized. His thoughts started to catch up to him again. He moved his feet and legs. It hurt, but they worked. He moved his hands. He craned his neck to see beside him.

Voss was there, and he was staring at him, gasping for breath. Kern breathed a sigh of relief.

“Are you alright?” Kern said. Now out of the fire, a torrent of tears escaped his eyes.

Voss wept much the same. “I’m alive. Everything’s here, I think. Messiah defend us.”

They stared at the tenement burning, and it seemed to obscure every other thing in the surroundings that was also burning. It hadn’t hit them yet what they had survived.

“I think I’m going to have to join you in the hospital now.” Kern said through loud sobs.

“I’m quickly getting the feeling we’ll have no end of company.” Voss replied.

 

Core Ocean, 1 km off Bada Aso

Parinita whistled. Personnel gathered on the deck of the ship and gazed at the inferno in awe.

It felt like from the deck of the Revenant they could see every single explosion as it went off.

Now the city was ablaze, a massive smoke-belching pyre becoming ever brighter and distant.

There was a general murmur of prayers and chants, for Ayvarta and even for the enemy.

Then, all across the ship, an unusual sound after the moment of silence — there was cheering. There were fists raised in defiance. Everyone had fought the world’s self-described strongest nation, and its people, and they had resisted the advance. On this ship everyone had survived. They had braved the cauldron and escaped unburnt. Nocht’s eyes, those eyes looking from outside into Ayvarta, saw them as sacrifices. But they saw each other as heroes today.

Madiha Nakar and her secretary watched from the starboard side of the ship’s stern, just off the side of a 100mm turret. Parinita joined in the cheering, but Madiha merely clapped.

She estimated that the casualties from the initial explosions would already reach the tens of thousands, given the places that she had contrived for the fires to be funneled toward.

Smoke and burning rubble would claim even more, especially if they tried to fight the fires and rescue anyone trapped in the blaze. In the coming hours Nocht would almost certainly have to vacate the city entirely, and let it burn out by itself in front of them. This would deny them Bada Aso’s railroad, if they even had any cars that could navigate Ayvarta’s rail gauge.

Scores of materiel set down in safe places by the enemy would be lost, destroyed either immediately by the fury or left behind as a casualty of the priorities required for a vast and desperate evacuation. Any vehicle in the city’s main roads would become a death-trap.

In the meantime, the Kalu defenders could strip everything from their line while enemy Panzer divisions stood still in the confusion as their Corps headquarters retreated from the city.

Time and again Madiha had asked herself whether this was the correct course of action. Did even an enemy as despicable as these men deserve the atrocity that she had unleashed on them? And yet, this was not solely about them. Without Hellfire, the city was both impossible to “defend” and impossible to escape from. Nocht had always had the mobility advantage. They could have chased down any retreat — except this one. Everything pointed to Hellfire.

At times, she had cursed her mind as it returned to the maps and the plans. Her mind would not allow her to make a different choice. She knew too well that this was the only plan that would work without opening themselves to be encircled in the city to die at the enemy’s hands.

Without the capability to blow the city to pieces under Nocht’s feet she would not have been able to evacuate so many of her own troops, to strip her lines just bare enough to hold Nocht for a few days and then escape on the Admiral Qote’s naval detachment. It was only with the knowledge that she did not need the troops to destroy Nocht that she could do what she did. It was the only way to save as many people as possible without condemning the saviors entirely.

In the end, Bada Aso was always going to erupt into these purging flames. It was inevitable.

* * *

Escort Naval Squadron “Admiral Qote” was a small fleet dispatched from Tambwe after the arrival of the Revenant, bringing news from Bada Aso. It consisted of the Revenant itself as the lead ship, along with the Admiral Qote, the newest and largest of Ayvarta’s few aircraft carriers; and the Selkie I and Selkie II, frigates; and the Charybdis, a troopship converted from a cruise liner over a year ago. Tourism to Ayvarta would not reignite any time soon.

Instead of holiday-makers, the Charybdis carried the remains of Madiha’s 3rd and 4th Line Corps, now dissolved pending reassignment. Madiha’s Divisional HQ for the 3rd Motor Rifles had been assigned with the annexation of as many of the best soldiers from the Ox defenders as could be found during the evacuation, and these people sailed on the Revenant with her. She was pleased with the combat records of people like Gulab Kajari and Adesh Gurunath. They would be needed in the time to come, and if possible, she desired to lead them.

She had wanted to gather everyone, congratulate them, and offer them Honors as a reward for service, but it seemed incredibly petty to reward them with a voucher that could potentially become a music player or fancy clothing or a personal motorcycle after all of these events.

Instead, Madiha stood on the starboard-aft side of the Revenant, beholding her handiwork.

“Hujambo, Major! Look what I got! It’s all fresh and warm too and not from a box!”

From behind her, Parinita appeared with a big, eager smile on her face, holding out a tray. She carried on it a big bowl of steaming yellow dal and several fresh-baked flatbreads. She had let her hair down, and it fluttered with the strong, salty ocean winds. Madiha smiled back.

“Ah, thank you.” She said. “Food has been the last thing on my mind today. I was very tense.”

“I noticed!” Parinita said. “But you’ll only feel worse if you stay hungry. Let’s sit down.”

Parinita gingerly set the tray down, and together she and Madiha sat against the stern-side turret. Before them was the sea and the city, growing ever distant. Behind them were the cranes to unload the cruiser’s speedboats, and then there was the conning tower where their navigation and sighting took place. Between the conning tower and the massive foremast was an aircraft catapult with a single Anka biplane converted for sea usage. Smaller quarters were strewn about and under these basic structures. The Revenant was quite a large vessel.

Madiha folded a piece of flatbread and scooped some of the lentil soup. She took a bite. Everything was nice and hot, the bread was soft, and she could taste the spices.

“I’m not averse to ration boxes, but a fresh meal always wins out.” Parinita said.

“Indeed.” Madiha said. She laid back, watching the smoke rise toward the clouds.

“How do you feel?” Parinita said. “We completed the plan. We were successful.”

Chewing her flatbread, feeling the mild residual heat from a hint of pepper in the soup, Madiha did not know how she felt. She thought dimly that she might feel triumphant watching the city explode, but something was missing. Though she had funneled them into a trap, she did not feel that it was by her maneuvering or force of arms that the enemy was defeated. She felt as if she had lured a hyena off a cliff, when she had been given a spear with which to hunt it.

Had she been anywhere but Bada Aso she would have failed. It was not her that defeated Nocht, she thought, but the history that she had in this place. The City itself devoured them.

Madiha realized that she wanted to fight Nocht. She wanted to defeat them in a contest.

Perhaps it was a matter of hazy emotions, but the Battle of Bada Aso did not satisfy that.

“Not particularly accomplished,” was what she finally settled on. It sounded right enough.

Parinita laughed. “‘Not particularly accomplished’ is a legitimate feeling. Trust me, I’m an expert in it. This one time, however, I’m allowing myself a little respite from self-doubt.”

“I suppose I could stand to treat myself less roughly.” Madiha replied, feeling a bit dispirited.

“You should.” Parinita laid a hand on her shoulder. “I don’t think anyone begrudges the choices that you have made. I signed off on the plan too, back in that long truck ride up to the city. I knew what was at stake and I had an idea of what would happen. But I trusted you. I think you are the chief reason any of us are still alive today. You give us all hope, Madiha.”

Madiha’s cursed dark eyes meet Parinita’s bright, friendly eyes. She looked at them fondly. It dawned on her, just how much everything could have been different. Had Parinita been anybody but herself; things would have turned out very differently. Seventeen days ago they had met for the first time, complete strangers suddenly thrust into each other’s orbits.

Now she could not fathom what her life would be like without Parinita, how those intervening 17 days of hardship could have played out without her jovial, sympathetic secretary. Without her friend; without a partner sharing in the burdens and the tension of the stressed HQ unit. Her recollections of how she treated Parinita made her feel more than a little inadequate.

“Thank you.” Madiha said. “It means a lot to me — we did not exactly meet under amicable circumstances but you were always there to support me. There were a lot of things you should not have seen and should not have had to do for me. I am ashamed of a lot of my conduct toward you. I was near to a breaking point and like a child I drew attention to myself and I put my hurting above everyone else in our circle. You should not have had to bear the burden of that on any level. You should not have had to pick up my pieces, Parinita. I’m sorry.”

Parinita heaved an amicable sigh and put her hands on her hips. “I can’t believe you! You start with a thank you and end with an apology. Have you even considered my feelings on this?”

Madiha was a little taken aback. “I’m not sure what you mean by that. I’m sorry.”

“I wish you’d stop apologizing.” Parinita said, looking at her pointedly. “For me it was not picking up your pieces. I might just be a Chief Warrant Officer, that might be everything that it says in my pins. But I’ve seen in you a person who is intelligent and kind and who has done so much. You put others ahead of yourself; maybe too much! And you have a great strength, and focus, and drive! I just– I, I admire you! I’m not just here to do a job, you know.”

Madiha blinked. Parinita averted her eyes a little and looked awkward for a moment.

After a moment’s silence, the secretary scooped up the last flatbread, soaked it deep into the dal, and pushed it into her mouth. She swallowed, drank a bit of fruit juice, and then thrust the lentils Madiha’s way. “Eat the rest of it, Madiha. You don’t have to respond. It’s just something I wanted you to know. I don’t feel offended; I just wanted us to be clear on that. If it’s you, I’d be more than happy to pick up those pieces, because I really want to see you whole.”

Unfamiliar pangs in her heart kept Madiha quiet. She dutifully took in spoonfuls of lentils and ate, until the bowl was empty. By then, Parinita looked to have dozed off beside her.

* * *

Night fell over the ocean, and Madiha could still see the smoke, having risen into the sky and mingled with the clouds. She could not sleep. Her mind wanted to be kept busy. So she stared out at the indistinct waves. She could not even see her face in them. It was just blue murk. Far behind her she saw the other ships, including the impressive Admiral Qote, on their tail. Collections of lights attached to a formless dark chassis, rolling over the gentle sea.

Having spent most of the day doing little of substance, she felt restless. Aboard the ship there was nothing of military importance for her to do yet. This was Captain Monashir’s domain. She had walked the deck, taken the tour; she had talked to Corporal Kajari and other KVW soldiers and gotten a positive response about the operation. Everyone seemed to relax and wind down. Madiha could not. Some part of her still felt like it was fighting. She could not sleep.

Instead she tried to catch her reflection in the water and she failed to see a face every time.

Gradually over the course of the day she had come to grips with several obvious facts.

Bada Aso was over. She had staked so much in this plan. It was completed. It was done. She did not know whether there would be new plans. Who knows whether the Council might seek to bring her to justice for the magnitude of the destruction? Certainly after Bada Aso Nocht would not be diplomatic with them anymore, if it was ever in the mood to be diplomatic before.

With this explosion, she had sounded the loudest gun alarming everyone to the fact that they were irrevocably at war. She had made the war real in a way no one had before her.

A city was destroyed, tens of thousands had been killed. Hell had awakened. It was War.

She heard the creaking of one of the metal doors behind her, and a long, loud yawning.

“You should be asleep!” Parinita said, stretching her arms over her head as she approached.

“I should, but I’m afraid I can’t sleep. I’ve turned into a bit of an insomniac.” Madiha said.

“Is it the nightmares again?” Parinita asked. “Like the ones you had before?”

“No. I had what I think will be last my vision a while back. I’ve broken the mean spirit that had a sway over me. Or at least, I think that I’ve done so. It may yet linger in me.”

“Something is lingering in you alright. You’re becoming strangely moody again.”

Parinita stood beside her and looked out to sea as well. Her hair was blowing again.

“Those tunnels in Bada Aso were older than antiquity.” Parinita said. “Old folks thought they gave visions. I would not have connected this legend to gasses, but it made sense when we talked it over during the planning stages. I never expected it to go off like this, though.”

“I don’t know exactly what that gas was, chemically. It might not even have been anything we know. There was work on its lethality done before me. I trusted it well enough.”

“Who did that work? I had access to a lot of information about the Adjar Dominance, including Bada Aso, and yet before you told me I had no idea Bada Aso could potentially blow up.”

“It was originally Kansal’s plan.” Madiha said. “In 2004 when the sewer was being renovated and expanded, a lot of old tunnel that had been built over was exposed. Workers became sick. Chemical workers thought it was an airborne illness. Kansal thought it had to be chemical gas. She thought we could set off a huge fire if we exploded a bomb in the right place underground. She even descended into the tunnels herself to see what could be done about it.”

These were things that she had forgotten until recently. They seemed eerily clear to her now.

“But she didn’t go through with it. Something convinced her that doing such a thing would kill tens of thousands of innocents. It was not possible to target only the Imperial administration. I don’t know where she got her information, but it always stuck with me. I forgot plenty of things, but the idea that Bada Aso could go up in smoke never quite left me. Had Kansal not shown restraint, who knows what direction the Revolution might have taken.”

“Given that I’m alive now, I like to think she made a good choice at the time. Maybe it was just intuition on her part. Or maybe she received a vision of her own in the stomach of the Earth.” Parinita said. She giggled a little. “Perhaps I’m being overly superstitious, however.”

Madiha averted her gaze, but the smoke was inescapable. It expanded across the sky like a scar left on the world. She had done that. No vision had prevented her from doing so. Her heart felt hurt. Bada Aso had been the closest thing she ever had to a home. Its streets were the only nurturing she received. In its schools she received her only formal education. She had first fallen love in Bada Aso; she had so many memories there that she had turned coldly from and obliterated, in much the same way that her convictions had led her to lose Chakrani.

She felt like the evidence of her humanity was now burning in the middle of those ruins.

“It feels monstrous to watch this unfold.” She said. “It makes me feel inhuman. So much happened at the border; it felt like a part of me that had been gone for decades had been thrust back into my body. I was seeing massive battle again for the first time since my childhood, and the very first thing I considered was to lead Nocht to Bada Aso and blow up that gas.”

“Madiha–” Parinita tried to interrupt her but Madiha continued to talk. She stared out over the fence at the edge of the deck, and her eyes sought for a face in the water. She found none.

“I had no idea what the magnitude of the explosion would be. At the time, I had no idea we would have those remote-control tanks available. Anyone whom I condemned to the final mission would have certainly gone to their deaths. No fuse, no wire, could have spared them from the aftermath. My first plan, the only plan, was essentially a suicide bombing.”

Those dreadful words reappeared in her mind.

Cunning; Command; Fearlessness; Ferocity.

“I would have done it. No matter what.” Madiha said. “Even if I had to go myself to set off the bombs. This, Parinita; this is all that my head is good for. I look at a beautiful city like Bada Aso, full of people, full of life and love and community. And I consider its destruction from afar. Destroying Bada Aso meant nothing to me; it accomplished the objective that I desired. In my mind it was just arrows on map, divisions in a grid on paper. It is a sick thing, isn’t it?”

Suddenly Parinita seized her by the shoulders and turned her around, locking eyes.

“I do not think you are sick at all Madiha. And I think, captivated by the fire, you’ve forgotten all the human things that led you here. You did not just spend your time calculating coldly. The Madiha that I saw throughout all of this was a person full of empathy and who saw everything through human eyes. I refuse to believe that your mind is only capable of unfeeling destruction. The fact we are having this conversation tells me you are honestly quite terrible at unfeeling destruction. And the tears starting in your eyes tell me you are very much human.”

There were tears. Madiha was weeping openly. She felt a surge of emotion that had long been repressed. Many years worth of a childhood were she could not feel for fear of being weak; a young adulthood where she did not feel for lack of things to feel; and an adulthood where in the face of loss and violence she thought she needed to be stronger than mere feeling. Now she wept, and she choked back sobs. Her heart pounded. Her head felt terribly hot now.

Parinita raised her hands to Madiha’s cheeks and smiled. “Treat yourself better, Madiha.”

Gentle thumbs ran across her cheeks, lifting her hair. Madiha felt the fire going away.

She raised a fist to her face and wiped away her tears. She nodded silently. “I will try to.”

“I will help.” Parinita said. She stroked Madiha’s cheek again. “I want to help.”

Madiha nodded her head, and took Parinita into her arms, and embraced her tightly.

“This reminds me of when I first proposed it, so; how about you indulge my hobby?” Parinita said, pushing Madiha by pressing with the tip of her finger between the latter’s breasts.

Madiha laughed; they were not exactly on the Revenant that time. But it was close enough. They looked out over the sea again, side by side with the ocean air and the gentle waves.

“I suppose one thing comes to mind. Do you know how they did the stormy ship effects in Battleship Krasnin? I have always wondered about that. Did they film it on a real ship?”

“Some of it was, but other things were cinemagic effects. Here, I’ll explain it in detail–”

Overhead the clouds of parted, and moonlight shone over the naval group. Sailing away from the city that had sealed their fates, the architects of this great destruction began then to forge something entirely different between each other on the deck of that fearsome ship.

 

36th of the Aster’s Gloom, 2030

Adjar Dominance, Ruins of Bada Aso — 1st Vorkampfer HQ

Casualties were still coming in. Fruehauf couldn’t believe the numbers. She was emotionally numb but her head was pounding and she found it hard to work. She was sweating and had nothing to drink. Just up the street, the Squire half-track firefighting vehicle struggled to contain the massive fire working its way down from the central district. For their own safety the entire staff had evacuated the restaurant and set up shop in a truck a kilometer down.

After the quaking from the explosions, it had nearly shaken itself apart anyway.

Everyone around her was sniffling. They could smell the smoke and burning even here.

There was nothing in the city ahead but a wall of fire moving closer, shining all the brighter at midnight, and thick smoke billowing that covered the moon and stars overhead.

All of their radio equipment had been transferred to the truck. A gas-powered generator towed behind them powered everything. She and her girls continued to work the airwaves. It was all that they could do, though even their sweetest voices granted no comfort in this disaster.

Calls were frantic. Medical supplies to Umaiha, more firefighting equipment requested to Penance, a tank requested to Matumaini to try to demolish a burning structure and prevent it collapsing on another and spreading the fire, ambulances requested everywhere. Everyone screamed at her that they needed help and every time she told them that their resources were stretched. The 10th and 11th Grenadier divisions were being moved from rear echelon duties to assist as fast as possible; and the 2nd and 3rd Panzer Divisions had nothing useful to give.

Whenever men demanded to speak to Von Sturm she would tell them he was ill or hurt.

Every scream for help and desperate realization that none could be spared wore Fruehauf down. She could no longer pretend that everything was fine and that she and the girls were living in a place apart from the war, like children looking out at a garden through a glass. They weren’t just gainfully employed helping out the boys; they were in the war. It was upon them.

With a shaking hand, she reached into her pocket, withdrew a cigarette, and smoked. She had told herself she wouldn’t — and she had spent over a week without one. But she could not handle it anymore. Leaving the radio command to Erika for the moment, she stepped out of the truck, and sucked on the end of the smoke stick, feeling the menthol cooling her throat.

She walked around the front of the truck. Wrapped in blankets, head lightly bandaged, Von Sturm slept in the front seat, tossing and turning. During the three minutes of loud and continuous explosions, and when the restaurant began to shake, he fell from his chair and hurt himself, because he was balancing with his feet on the table. It had been his golden excuse to spend the rest of the day leaving the coordinating of rescue efforts to lower officers like the recently-demoted Lieutenant Aschekind. There was no one above Captain dealing with fire.

Atop the driver’s compartment sat Von Drachen, with his feet on the hood. He smiled at her at first, but then he took on a sudden, judgmental turn when he saw the stick glowing in her lips.

“I did not take you for a smoker, Fruehauf. Those things can kill you, you know? I have seen it happen myself. I will admit that the stick makes you look more mature, though.”

“Watching over the good General?” Fruehauf asked, her tone a lot less sweet than usual.

“I must say I may be nursing an unfortunate attraction to the irascible little man.” He said.

“I would keep that to myself.” Fruehauf replied. She took a long drag of the cigarette.

Von Drachen stared over his shoulder at the fire. She saw him work up an impish grin.

“They’re going to make us pay dearly throughout this entire war. She, especially, will be trouble. And I’m going to think, all throughout, that I could have stopped her.”

He held out his hand to Fruehauf. “I think I’m going to need to take up smoking, to cope.”

Fruehauf turned her cheek and denied him. “I’m not going to be responsible for that.”

She sat on the hood of the truck. Her nerves were calming. She blew a little cloud.

Von Drachen fell back atop the truck, spreading his arms. He started laughing.

“Sergeant Nakar; you rascal. You have no respect for us. But why should you, when your mind is stronger than our weapons? Must the burden truly fall on me to try to be your equal?”

Fruehauf withdrew her cigarette from her lips and stepped on it on the floor. She crossed her arms and watched the fires play in the distance. She wondered what would become of their corps, and whether Ayvarta had any more of these terrifying sights in store for her.

Maybe she had picked a spectacularly bad time to try to be free of nicotine.

 

% % %

Declared end of the Battle of Bada Aso on the 36th of the Aster’s Gloom, 2030 D.C.E.

Nocht Operational Failure; city destroyed, unacceptable casualties, advance delayed, rail network compromised. Ayvartan Strategic Failure; city captured, Adjar lost.

Near total destruction of the 6th Grenadier Division, 13th Panzergrenadier Division, and Cissean “Azul” Corps. Heavy losses to the 2nd and 3rd Panzer Divisions.

Disbanding of Battlegroup Ox due to loss of its mandated territory.

Continued strategic success of Generalplan Suden. Ayvartan forces withdraw from the Adjar Dominance and are defeated in the Shaila Dominance. Nocht control of Southern Ayvarta solidified. War proceeds to its next stage. Operations in Dbagbo and Tambwe greenlit.

Confirmed deployment of 1st Panzerarmee and Field Marshal Haus to Ayvarta.

Confirmed promotion of Madiha Nakar to Colonel; Ayvarta’s first in many years.

Casualties as declared by belligerents~68,000 Ayvartan || ~43,000 Nocht.

Please advise.

–Striving For World Peace

~Helvetian Foreign Intelligence Bureau “ULTRA”

 

* * *

Next chapter in Generalplan Suden — Intermission, Lehner’s Greed.

The Library And The Ladybird (VI)

“Are you alright, Madame President?” Ladybird innocently asked, standing in the middle of a plaza where the earth was cratered and splintered by catastrophic seismic activity, in the shadow of an enormous flying disc bristling with guns, and surrounded by the severed remains of its razor-tipped tentacles, cut mere seconds into a bloodthirsty charge. She smiled, and patted the shaking president on the ripped shoulder of her suit in a friendly and affirming fashion.

“NO, I’m not alright!” President Cassandra Ableman shouted.

Behind them the floating vehicle raised the open stumps of its tentacles.

“Oh, just a cut along the segment? That’s fixable.” Dr. Cruciere said.

One by one the tentacles stumps extended toward the ground. Ladybird seized President Ableman, who was of thankfully average weight, and leaped over the parked APC, seeking cover on its other side. Behind them the tentacles reached out to their severed heads and connected anew, a series of loud sucking sounds issuing from the act as though sunction cups were being pressed together. Each flexible shaft seamlessly joined as though never cut, and the tentacles rose again like new, snapping their razor-sharp pincers in anticipation. Ladybird spotted them over the APC and leaped away again; she spread her wings and blew a stream of green exhaust from the fleshy rocket spouts on her lower back, propelling her clear away from the attack. The tentacles crashed over and around the APC, ensnaring the vehicle and raising it to the air while the troops inside threw themselves desperately from the doors.

Ladybird landed safely near the mysterious monument, President Ableman still on hand and protesting furiously, but her feet had barely touched the ground when she heard something snapping loudly behind her. She glanced over her shoulder as the Hydra launched the APC toward her like a catapult throwing a boulder, and had precious seconds to react. Ladybird leaped and burst upward with her rockets, barely avoiding the remains of the vehicle as it crashed below her and smashed into the ancient doors. She felt a wave of heat and the pinpricks of shrapnel as the APC ‘s motor exploded, demolishing the chassis and showering the surroundings in metal and flames.

“Find somewhere safe to put me down already!” Cassandra cried.

There was nowhere near that was safe to land now; Ladybird flapped her wings and sustained her rockets, taking off in full flight. One by one the tentacles separated again behind her, having clumped together to throw the APC, and covered the area around the floating machine. It was easy to conflate the actions of the machine with an alien intellect, and Ladybird often erroneously did so – but inside the thing was an even more dangerous adversary, Dr. Anne-Marie Cruciere, and her assistant Asmodeus. It was no simple thing for Ladybird to keep the President safe from them. She knew nothing of what this was machine was capable and was too busy keeping away from it to be able to tell.

She tapped her forehead. “Dragonfly, give me something on this thing!”

In the corner of her eyes she saw Libel, Dragonfly, appear in a little square video feed on her goggles.

“I’m trying to figure out a strategy here, but this machine is really abstract. I think that she designed this specifically to be the same thickness all around so that you can’t easily bifurcate any one place with your claws. From what I can tell the tentacles are at least 20 metres long each. They are segmented, and it appears if you cut along the segments, Cruciere can just attach the tentacles again. Try cutting diagonally. And watch out for the–”

An autocannon round flew suddenly past, slicing off a little tuft from the right side of Ladybird’s long, black hair. Ladybird banked sharply as the guns on the Hydra screamed with renewed purpose.

Cassandra screamed and pressed herself tighter against Ladybird’s chest. The air filled with flak and Ladybird twisted and turned in mid-air, wincing as the withering fire grazed her, exposing trickles of yellow blood and hints of brown skin from under tiny rips on the sides of her suit. Direct impacts bounced harshly off, unable to penetrate the suit and then her well toned back head-on – but she felt the bruises they left, wide areas of throbbing flesh. She hugged Cassandra close to her, trying desperately to keep her guarded from the bullets. For all her strengths Ladybird had not devised any good plan to deal with unguided anti-air fire like flaks, and Cruciere was taking ample advantage of this. Ladybird had never flown a plane in her life – and now she was, more or less, acting like a biological plane in the middle of a killing zone. She tried to bank, to dive, to burn her rockets as fiercely as possible, but the gunfire was everywhere, a storm of metal that try as she might she could not fully avoid. She had only one chance, one thing all flaks suffered from.

She heard it; the tell-tale click. Without looking Ladybird dove straight from the ground while the guns reloaded. She hit the ground, reoriented herself in a second and snapped into action again, charging at full speed toward the monument and taking cover behind it, hoping to put enough stone between herself and Cruciere to be safe. She heard the second set of clicking noises and saw renewed shooting. Bullets whizzed past the monument with the same fury, but it was wholly ineffective and scattershot fire, aiming overhead for where she had been.

“Hey! Where did you go now? Come out now you cowardly insect! Fight like the roach you are!” Cruciere said, pounding her fists on something inside her cockpit to vent her frustration.

“Doctor, roaches do not fight.” Asmodeus said, as though unaware she was on the sound system as well. Cruciere grumbled loudly, broadcast all over the plaza, and the guns clicked to a stop.

“Exactly!” Cruciere shouted.

With her back to the stone and safe from fire, Ladybird caught her breath.

She examined her charge and sighed with relief. Cassandra had dug her fingernails right into her back and neck, and she clung to her like a child to a parent, shaking and gritting her teeth in fear. She appeared wholly unharmed by the hailstorm of bullets they had flown through, and slowly Ladybird coaxed her back to her old self by petting her head. Cassandra opened one eye, and then another. She almost jumped out of Ladybird’s arms in shock.

“Listen, you,” Cassandra pointed accusingly, tapping Ladybird’s nose, her face very red and sweating and her eyes puffy with tears, “You did save me or something, but– whatever! Don’t let it go to your head! Don’t think you’re some kind of big hero now. It was your duty as a citizen of Amera to protect me. That’s all!”

“Sure.” Ladybird grinned. “You’re welcome Madame President.”

“It’s– It’s not like I’m grateful or anything! So don’t get egotistical about it!”

Cassandra huddled behind the monument, hugging herself and mumbling ‘I could have died’ to herself in a faraway voice, while Ladybird stretched her arms and legs, and spread her elytra. She had burnt a lot of exhaust, and felt suddenly tired. Though she did not know exactly how it worked, her body converted calories, and particularly sugar energy, into the strange green effect that carried her aloft and produced her exhaust. It also came handy in other ways – already her oozing yellow wounds had taken a dim green glow and begun to heal, giving off a green mist.

It was all the verdite in her blood – the same junk powering Cruciere’s machine.

“Ladybird!” Cruciere shouted, broadcasting at an even louder volume, “You have exactly ten seconds to come out and fight me, so that I can destroy you; or else, I will be very mad! I may choose to destroy other things instead, like this statue here, or that giant rock fissure there, or that important-looking lamp-post!”

She heard the thundering of Cruciere’s guns, spinning up and stopping in seconds.

“There goes the lamp! This is on you Ladybird! You caused this tragedy!”

Ladybird sighed deeply, rubbing her face against the palms of her hands.

“You’ll need to get up close and under the craft.” Dragonfly said, taking over one of the goggle screens to display a diagram of the craft and tentacles, “While the underside has the same guns, they’ll be at a disadvantage firing on you up close because they might hit the tentacles, and their traverse and angle will be more limited.”

“Alright. Just let me catch my breath a second.” Ladybird said. “I’m down on calories.”

“Oh, that’s right, we never really got to have a decent breakfast.” Dragonfly said.

“And I didn’t bring anything to eat either.” Ladybird replied.

Chunks of stone and burning bits of plaster and rebar flew past the monument.

“There goes the statue, Ladybird!” Cruciere said, following a second burst of gunfire, “Your selfishness is destroying vivid Ameran heritage; this wonderful rock fissure is next! Surrender now to save it!”

Cassandra stood from the ground and dusted herself off.

“Oh for goodness’ sakes! Here!” She shouted.

She extended Ladybird a hand while turning her cheek away. Ladybird stared, incredulous – at arms reach Cassandra offered a high-calorie energy bar, chocolate flavored, for Ladybird to take.

Ladybird stared for a moment.

“It’s a high-stress lifestyle and I have cravings!” Cassandra said.

“That’s honestly not what I’m confused about.” Ladybird said, tentatively taking the bar from Cassandra’s hands as though it were about to go off like a bomb at any second. This would be the first magnanimous thing she had ever seen the President do for anybody.

“Just eat the stupid bar and go stop that maniac!” Cassandra shouted.

Ladybird unwrapped the bar and pushed the whole thing into her mouth unceremoniously. She consumed it with a vicious chewing. It tasted faintly vitamins at first but followed with an overpowering and bitter dark chocolate flavor. She barely noticed the advertised wafer crisp interior filled with very bland caramel, save for a slight contribution to mouthfeel. Nonetheless Ladybird felt the rush of sugar and calories through her body like a wholly palpable sensation, as though her organs were as sensitive to touch and stimulus as her skin. Cassandra watched with horror as she chomped down on it like a beast, swallowing the whole lump in one go. She crumpled the paper and threw it, missing a nearby waste basket.

“This thing sucks. You need to buy a better brand.” She said.

Before Cassandra could protest Ladybird dashed out of cover, propelling herself along the ground with her feet barely touching the earth and her rockets burning green from her lower back. She glided easily across the terrain, her eyes locked on her adversary. Across from her the Hydra spun its body a few degrees to face her, and she made note of the positions of the guns. Cruciere laughed uproariously and the vehicle opened fire, the guns along the bottom of the thick black disc raking the earth with lines of concentrated fire, so thick and fast it that it seemed like invisible blades were cutting up the turf around the Ladybird. She strafed, avoiding the guns and closing in rapidly.

To keep up with Ladybird the guns extended further down from the body, maintaining a suitable angle to fire on a target closing in to point-blank range. This was her chance – as soon as Ladybird entered the shadow of the vehicle she leaped and launched herself to the first gun. A tentacle rose to take a swipe at her, and in an instant she cut through it, her hand melting into the shape of a lone razor-like claw, and reached the underside of the craft. She clung to the gun, the tentacle falling behind her, swiped diagonally and incapable of recovery; she plunged her hand through the gun as though it was paper rather than steel, ripping out its mechanical guts and throwing them away.

Eight other tentacles curled beneath the craft and snapped toward her. She leaped again as the pincers converged uselessly on the bottom of the disc, and threw herself between two other turrets hurriedly turning to target her.  She flew to a suitable midpoint between the guns and extended both her arms. Sudden muscle action sucked her digits and palms into the arm with a sharp crunch, leaving thick, scarified brown spouts in their places, dribbling yellow blood, steaming green mist, the veins across the wrist and forearm glowing an intermittent green. There was no pain and she did not even have to think for a second to perform this seemingly grotesque ritual – transforming an appendage was as natural as moving it. She felt her arms swell slightly; hot green streams of corrosive fluid erupted from where her hands once were, flying several meters and striking both her targets, eating through the barrels as she flew away.

She turned her own guns on the tentacles, shooting two more streams into the mass, but they dispersed too quickly and her range was too short, and the jets of hot acid fell harmlessly away from their targets. She bolted up the side of the craft, and landed atop behind one of the gun turrets. A tentacle rose with her and turned on its side, readying to swat her away; she spread her arms to meet it, and took it to the chest like catching a charging bull. She managed to get a grip, stopping it mid-swing and wrapping her arms around the thick, ridged shaft.

“Let go of that!” Cruciere shouted. “That’s sensitive equipment!”

The tentacles rose around the craft like the arches of a crown. Ladybird held tight to her own struggling tentacle, giving it a little slack so that she move just a bit further down the shaft. One by one, in the same pattern as their previous collective attacks, the tentacles drove down toward her. Ladybird grinned, and squeezed her arms together around the shaft, crushing and sealing it, and she took her captured tentacle as a flail. Taking advantage of the space between the tentacle’s attacks and their positions around the ring of the craft, she swung her own, slicing through the first and hardly losing momentum for the second and third, fluidly bifurcating the appendages and rendering them incapable of repair. Her captured tentacle embedded itself into the fourth tentacle it cut, having lost velocity; Ladybird dropped it and leaped out of the way of the remaining three, which came crashing down unto the gun turret.

From the air Ladybird pushed herself back down into a dive with one last, mighty burst from her rockets. Her arms turned to razors and she twisted herself into a spin, bringing her blade down on all three remaining tentacles and severing them from the heads. The metal pincers fell upon the saucer and the flexible shafts slid uselessly off the top of the vehicle, hanging limply in their neutral positions. All nine of the tentacles were inoperable. Ladybird stood triumphant atop the saucer. She put her fists to her hips, and stuck her tongue out at one of the cameras atop the craft.

There was a sharp click, and a slow twisting of metal; the remaining gun turrets did not find Ladybird very amusing. She grinned. When they opened fire their bullets ricocheted harmlessly off metal. Ladybird kicked one of the fallen pincers into the line of fire, and using it as cover she drew a bead on the guns, her arms turned to spouts once again. Quick shots of acid caught barrels and armor, eating through the guns and rendering them useless. Once the pincer hit ground again the C.S. Hydra was, seemingly, fully disarmed. Ladybird sat on it and crossed her arms, smiling.

“Good work!” Dragonfly cheered. “I’m sorry I couldn’t be more help!”

“Moral support is fine too.” Ladybird said.

“Really? You think you won?” Cruciere laughed over the speakers. “Last I checked, I was still in here. And if you think I can’t find a way to reattach these tentacles, you’re kidding yourself.”

Quietly, Ladybird stood up atop the craft and picked one of the pincers back up, holding it by a battered length of its impressive segmented tether tubing. Calm and expressionless, she dragged it to the middle of the craft, and turned her back to it. She tugged, suddenly and with all her strength. The pincer soared over her shoulder and fell on the craft; Ladybird repeatedly reeled it in and threw it back, hammering at the exterior of saucer. Metal crunched, supports started spalling, coolant fluid and thin streams of waste gases escaped the craft. Across its surface various plates began to shimmer, turning rapidly invisible and then visible again, malfunctioning from the savage nature of the beating. The saucer tipped and turned with each brutal attack, and gradually lost altitude. Sirens blared.

Over sirens, the speakers blared the sound of a palm repeatedly slapping a face.

“Ok, well, we’ve all learned a lot today.” Doctor Cruciere said, the audio sounding choppy and crackling. “Soon, soon, Newfork city, and Amera! You will kneel to me! But until then, I admit defeat. I am not, however, responsible for the safe landing and disposal of my enormous flying saucer, which will crash any second now.”

Ladybird stopped beating on the craft, and found herself nearly thrown off the top as the exterior of the saucer snapped suddenly open, jagged plates rising in strange angles, releasing a cloud of hot gases and spraying cooling and propellant fluids in their wake. She rolled clumsily off the craft as Cruciere’s escape pod blasted off from it, its exhaust setting aflame the dispersed liquids that preceded the launch. Ladybird hit ground in the shadow of the falling craft, and struggled to stand, feeling dizzy and sick from inhaling god only knows what; she looked blearily to the sky for the escape pod, but it had already become invisible, camouflaged like the craft it had once been a part of.

“Ladybird, forget her, you have to get away from that thing!” Dragonfly said, taking over all of Ladybird’s goggles for a second and pointing her fingers furiously up. When Ladybird looked where she was pointing, her image disappeared and instead she saw the massive craft, accelerating toward the ground as its unknown propulsion systems failed and gravity took hold of it once more. Ladybird dove clumsily out of the way, rocketing herself into a roll, crashing legs over shoulders out of the burning shadow and smashing into a raised chunk of the field that had been upturned by the earthquake. She watched the unfolding madness upside down, her antennae and wings broken.

Descending ever faster, the wreck tore into the earth, taking the remains of fountains and light posts, ripping cobblestone from paths across the plaza, a tidal wave of dirt and turf rising and falling around it as it slid across the ground, threatening the government buildings across the park from it. There seemed to be no stopping the craft, and troops, secret service and curious civilians that had been watching from afar all scattered in a mass panic. When it seemed the craft would bowl over the Library of Congress, it crashed instead into the mysterious monument and came to a complete stop, incapable of breaking through. It settled, burning, plates and tentacle remnants dangling behind it.

For the first time in what seemed like an eternity, there was quiet again in the Presidential Plaza. It was, however, quite short lived. From the monument, a shrill scream issued, and the stamping of high heeled shoes on stone could be heard across the monuments and the plaza field. “No! No! No no no!” President Cassandra Ableman screamed and cried and pounded on the rock. “This can’t be happening! Oh Sacred Hell not under my first term!”

Ladybird heard all of this, but was too dizzy to make any sense of it.

“Ladybird,” Dragonfly said, “I uh– I think that weird monument is open now.”

The Burden of the Post

Uttarakuru is the fantasy world in my head, and some of my writings. I’ve been meaning to write stories in it, and the book I’m working on will be set in it. I want to use this space to write a couple short pieces about it. I’m trying a different, a bit more ponderous style of writing. I don’t know whether it will seem different, but just so you know. As usual you are quite welcome to comment and let me know what you think. 

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There was a bulletin board pinned to the building’s center column, and big, bold script written overhead, each character curling elegantly into the next. The board greeted every customer who walked through the door; the first thing they could see was a bright and cheerful, “What Is New At The Sleet Street Post Office?” There were several different papers and pictures tagged to the board, each with news and tips to make one’s post office journey more pleasant. The price of stamps had risen by 2 copper, and there was a pleading reminder for everyone to bring exact change. Photocard rates had gone down 1 copper, thanks to a good crop of Ash Herb this year. A glossy Photocard of Calis and Kamlee, sole employee and sole manager of the Sleet Street post office, smiled at the customers as a vibrant example of the premium quality pictures they could buy. Below them, wanted posters hung by Arbiters and the Gendarmerie mugged at the entryway and listed fresh, frightening crimes.

Calis Maharapatram stood from behind the counter, and searched everywhere for onlookers and busybodies. He looked outside to the frosty streets. He looked in the washroom. He looked around the front office. He was thankfully alone. Nobody was watching – except the spirits whom he would soon disappoint. Tail stiff and erect behind him, he rushed up to the column, silently prayed to the spirits of justice to forgive him, and took all of the wanted posters. He quickly moved them to a much less cheerful bulletin board in a corner of the boxy post office lobby. This was the official and unspoken location policy on wanted posters. “Nobody wants to see a bunch of crooks leering at ’em when they’re coming to the Post,” Post-Manager Kamlee had said, reverentially waving her hands as she invoked the name of the sacred Post, the great purveyor of stamps.

“Leave the posters there for a few hours, then jank them out when no one’s looking and put them on the other board. I don’t want them seen from the door. A wanted poster’s never caught a thief anyway.”

Calis did not agree with the Post Manager, but he was a Post Employee, and it was his job.

In the midst of his miscarriage of justice, he heard bells ringing as the front door swung open and struck them. “One moment please!” He called back, hurriedly pinning the papers. Passing by the counter he glanced at the customer in front of the column, reading the bulletin board with the new rates. He smiled suddenly. It would probably be a photocard – when they stopped to read the rates, it was always a photocard, and those were all kinds of fun.

The customer called back. “Take your time!”

She waved her hand over the side of the column.

Calis took his place behind the tall wooden counter. Having been given a bit of leeway, he feigned as though he had to search the shelves behind the counter for something; instead he crouched out of sight and touched up his pigments, quickly applying a bright red lip pen and a eye pen, and powder to smooth his skin further. He checked the pin holding his long hair against the back of his head. Once certain he was comely and Lilly-like, he stood up anew, fixing his tie and pressing down his warm red uniform skirt and jacket. Reds were the chosen color of the Post in the city of Oomash. Sleet Street, and all of Oomash for that matter, were constantly battered with snow, due to their position atop the Hetuku – bright, hot colors and a crisp appearance was just one thing the Post could do to make customers feel warm in the mountain weather.

His customer approached the counter. Had she wanted to deposit a letter, there was a tube with a small pump on the left-hand side of the room which would drop the letter in a basket in the back office. No, Calis thought, what she wanted was service. He smiled, and held his hands clasped together in front of him on the counter. Though he knew better than to assume things, she seemed a monied person – under her blue, shimmering drake-scale coat he could see silk and bright gold buttons and a bit of chain around her neck, perhaps a fine jeweled necklace, and when her coat split as she sought out her purse, he noticed very fine-looking long robes of a quality fabric, and a very colorful sash around her stomach.

The woman deposited a piece of paper on the counter.

“I would like to send this message to a person in Karst, in the Southland.”

Calis closed his eyes. He was still smiling. “Come again?”

“A telegram; you offer telegraph services, don’t you?”

“Why, yes, yes we do.” Calis said. His voice wavered slightly, and his fingers trembled. He ran through the calculations very quickly and subtly, all in the midst of flipping and arranging some of his stray hair over his dog-like ears. Casual fidgeting helped hide the math work. Distance, standard message codification fee, materials, average message length with optimal typography; in a moment he had the price. Yet his heart would not stop pounding, and he felt a bit of perspiration building. “The price is a bit prohibitive; regulations and all. It will be six silver, five copper.”

“I don’t mind the price. I need to send a message to my wife, it’s very urgent.”

“Alright. One moment please!”

Calis bowed his head and calmly retreated through a door beside the front desk. He closed it behind himself. The back office was quiet, save for the thump of an official seal being punched on letters, and the drip of a leaking pipe, unable to freeze shut due to the heat from the interior furnace. He walked past his desk, and stood in front of a larger and more desk. Though obscured by a mound of letters, the occupant was certainly active; periodically a letter, now punched with the official seal of the Oomash post, would fly out and strike the wall, then flutter down unto a large, wheeled basket of out-bound mail.

“Anything wrong?”

“I need help.” Calis said. He sighed deeply. “It’s a telegram. A customer wants a telegram.”

Long ears the shape of falcon’s wings rose over the mound in alert. A pair of hands split the mound of letters down the middle, allowing Post Master Kamlee to peer out in shock. “A telegram, really?” She cried out, quickly buttoning up her post uniform over her undershirt, having unbuttoned it for comfort. She took one of her shiny postal service medals and pinned her short hair behind her head with it, trying to be as presentable as possible with as little effort as could be spared. “What kind of customer are we talking here; and are there really no other options for them?”

“Woman, and a Lilly maybe; young, I guess? Looks affluent. Message is for her wife.”

“Oh dear. She looks like she can pay the ridiculous rate then? And she’s motivated?”

Calis nodded. “She does and she is. She really wants to send this telegram.”

“Why doesn’t she send a letter?” Kamlee protested, stamping her fists on the desk and knocking some of the letters unto the floor. “What kind of reckless life does she lead that she can’t plan ahead for a simple and easy letter? I don’t want to judge, but I am judging! A telegraph, in this spirit-blessed year?”

“She assured me it was urgent and serious.” Calis said.

Calis and Kamlee slowly and with great dismay turned to the room corner, where the machine in question had lain for years now, unmoved, blissfully forgotten. It seemed now to brim with ominous new life. The telegraph machine was just small enough to fit through the door, with effort, and no smaller. Atop the beast was long and broad surface full of thick pearl keys and a long needle with a button to punch it down on the surface. This mechanism was used to type down messages containing the 90 accepted Standard Script characters that could be transmitted via the telegraph. It stood on four ancient brass legs with iron wheels and over time it had lost almost all of the gilded sheen and glossy pigment it had been given. Kamlee and Calis could hardly see their expressions reflected in its body anymore. Their brown skin seemed to disappear on it, and it was uncomfortably pitted, so they looked sickly in whatever glossy surfaces their faces could still reliably appear upon.

Inside the machine were a series of copper and gold sinews, carefully burnt in and blessed, and the various organs by which it consumed fuel and then transmitted its etchings to other stations. It was like a voice box, only infinitely more confusing. And it was now up to Calis and Kamlee to unravel the monstrosity, for six silver coins and five copper ones. Eyeing the beast and filled with dread at its coming awakening, the two clasped their hands and muttered quick prayers. May the spirits protect its iron soul; may they bless the post with the skill and strength to commandeer its esoteric powers.

Kamlee asked again, slowly drawling each word. “Are you sure you explained the rates?”

Calis nodded, his face grim. “Six silver, five copper. More than my salary for today’s work.”

Kamlee stood up her desk, and she marched to the telegraph machine, and kicked it.

Together, they seized upon the telegraph machine and pushed it out of its corner. They struggled to turn it, to curve it around obstacles, and to force it flush against the wall. It was a mammoth, a rattling beast, and they were never more aware that their limbs contained flesh, supple, vulnerable flesh, than when they attempted to wrest it from the back office. Pushed through the door at an angle, it could possibly even become lodged in the door frame and bar the way out – much of the struggle involved aligning the machine with the door in the precise way it would fit. Thrashing legs scraped against the floor; they ran with their shoulders set to the machine, just to move it inches toward a destination.

“Namaste! One moment please!” Kamlee called out to the post front.

“Take your time!” The customer said.

Once aligned with the door, the machine was forced out of it inch by inch. Calis and Kamlee set their shoulders against it, drew back, and shoved it, each charge pushing the machine just a bit further. Their customer hurried to one side as they barged through the door and rolled the machine out unto the floor of the front office, the polished floor giving them slightly better gains from each push and thrust. Calis felt a throb whenever he so much as moved his arm on the side he had been charging the machine, his shoulder a tight knot of pain. The two of them split up, as routine demanded.

Kamlee addressed the customer with a smiling face.

“Good afternoon, Mati–

She paused at the honorific, allowing the customer to fill in for her.

“Charee Lakhanpal.”

Kamlee bowed her head, and Charee bowed back. They held hands as part of the greeting. “We’ll get your message out in short order.” Kamlee gracefully led her to the counter, where she took a sheet of paper from a small box on a corner of the desk, and offered the woman her pen. “First, could you fill out this survey for us?”

Charee smiled. “Gladly.”

Behind them, Calis pulled the machine steadily across the room until it was closer to the wall. Using the slight distraction he had been given, he took practiced steps to prepare the machine for its task. He opened a sliding panel on the wall and attached a thick rubber-coated metal cable to brass contact points on one end of the machine. Inside the sliding panel was a small tin can. Its fluid, greenish-brown contents had frozen solid over time. Nonetheless, he scraped the crumbling brown chunks out of the can with the nib of his official postal service pen and into a fold-out reservoir on the back of the machine. He folded it back in, uttered a line of prayer, and peeked his head over the contraption to signal for Kamlee.

“Ah, we’re ready. And just in time too. Here is a survey prize for you, Charee das.”

Kamlee procured a small leaf of paper with four commemorative stamps affixed, celebrating the venerable Urus armored car and its hundred years of service in various roles, including postal delivery. Charee folded the paper into her dress robes, between her belly and her ornate sash. Her tail wagged a little with appreciation.

The Post Master walked Charee to the telegraph machine, and made a flourish of her hands as though to introduce a valuable member of the staff. Calis struggled not to laugh or make a gesture that would hint at the sheer insincerity behind their actions. Both of them hated this machine and hated using it but their contempt could never be allowed to spread to the customers desiring it. The Post was about Service, the almighty Post, and it had a reputation to maintain. Calis kept himself stoic as possible, offering a smile only if Charee’s eyes neared his way. While Kamlee explained some of how the machine would work, and took Charee’s message, Calis smacked his lips as though to even out the pigments he had applied on them, and made as though to sort out his hair, flipping some over his ears and running his fingers lightly through it.

Finally their customer stepped back from them, and Kamlee hovered over the machine and pulled on a lever. This produced a cough of pale yellow smoke from a different hatch on the side of the machine, and it began to rattle and generate heat. Its engine labored to burn and consume the frozen esochem Calis had fed into it.

“Calis, please punch down the message I’ll be dictating to you.”

Calis stood on the tips of his shoes and leaned over the machine. He was not tall enough to use the machine comfortably, and his face was soon dripping with sweat. On one hand he had a lever which would turn the thick, brutal-looking and menacing needle arm atop the telegraph machine, and slide it up and down across the keys, emblazoned with the characters available to spell out messages; his other hand he kept over a square button, which he could hit with his fist to trigger the arm descending unto a key, transmitting that character through the wire via its strange powers, across vast tracts of land, to a similar office which was equipped with a receiver machine that could print out the message.

“Dear Mati Upsala Ramayan, stop from beloved wife Mati Charee Lakhanpal line,” Kamlee began her dictation and Calis began to move the needle and punch down the characters, each time causing the machine to rattle more violently for an instant, and then a tiny spark to issue from the cable panel on the wall, “Sincerest apologies for my behavior, stop, I wish once again to live with you, line, living apart from you has been hellish, stop. My heart and flesh long for you like no other, stop. There can be nobody in my bed but you, line. I shall disavow the third party forever, please return to me, end.”

Calis’ face grew very red while typing the message. Not just from the heat wafting up from the beastly telegraph machine, but the fact that all of this resulted in a reconciliation letter regarding an affair!

But Charee and Kamlee seemed unmoved by the dictation, so Calis kept quiet and did his work, and tried not to nurse any theatrical fantasies about the letter and its origins. Once it was fully written, Kamlee pulled the lever again. A final spark of power blew from the back of the machine and traced the length of the cable into the wall, and then on its way down to the Southland. Kamlee nonchalantly wiped her own brow with a handkerchief, pocketed it, and bowed again to Charee. “Your message is now on its way. I hope it will touch your wife’s heart, as it touched ours.” She said graciously.

“I sincerely hope so as well.” Charee said.

“May the spirits of love tie a red knot around you two, once again.” Calis said. His own voice was exhausted. His hair was somewhat disheveled, and he would likely need to redo his pigments.

Charee took her leave, complimenting Calis on how wonderful he looked with his lip stick and skirt. The two postal workers exchanged bows and hands with their customer, and Charee handed Kamlee a bank note from the Center Circle, the portion of the city inside the mountain that housed the apparatus of government. The note covered the cost of the message, when exchanged. The moment the door bells rang again, and the door swung shut, Kamlee and Calis collapsed against the machine. They promptly regretted it, as the fiend was still red hot, and burnt them through their uniforms.

“Spirits-cursed thing! I want it melted down!” Kamlee shouted, kicking it again. Her winged ears beat fast in her anger, and her feathery tail closed and folded open rapidly. “I want it shot!”

“Must we push it back in now?” Calis cried, brushing his hands hard against his back in a desperate attempt to cool the stinging pain running down the back of his neck and down his spine.

“We should roll it down the street! Roll it off the mountain!” Kamlee shouted.

But they could do no such thing. Sleet Street Post offered telegraph services, had offered them for close to a hundred years, and they would continue to do so for a hundred more. Realizing their situation, Calis and Kamlee cursed the machine more, resigned themselves, and when it cooled, prayed to the Spirits for strength. They would have to push it back inside the back office, to await the next customer who required a message sent miles and miles overland faster than a letter could arrive. Regardless of their reservations, it was this, which was truly the burden of the post.